by Pete Bodo
PARIS—The cries rained down from the entire perimeter of Court Philipp Chatrier, "Go, Vika," or "Allez, Vika!" Over in the sparsely-populated VIP section, Victoria Azarenka's managers were volubly encouraging their client, as were a few Russian-speaking somebodies. There was an Asian girl in the box too, not that it mattered a whole lot to Li Na. Turned out that spectator was for Azarenka, too.
I felt bad for Li, and once again realized how difficult it must be for a Chinese player to make his or her way around the world tour—even if, like Li, she's been a Grand Slam finalist. Not that she had a pressing need of my or anyone else's support; she played a terrific match today to knock out the woman who many felt was the most legitimate contender here based on her play since Indian Wells and Miami, Azarenka.
Li accomplished that in straight sets, 7-5, 6-2, to earn a place in the semis opposite Maria Sharapova, the third tall, powerful, rangy and aggressive blonde Li has come across in as many rounds (Petra Kvitova and Azarenka were her two previous victims). Li is officially listed at 5' 7" (a short 5' 7" if you ask me), so you would have to clone her and then stand one atop the other to create one Li as tall as Sharapova. That's okay with Li, though. She plays big. As she said of her recent history and immediate future:
"So I know these three players was like hit ball so hard, not even like Spanish or European player, like play more topspin, dropshot. I think this good for me. I didn't like someone play like Spanish player, like topspin, dropshot, I always have to running and hit the ball. I hate that." She laughed. "I like to stand there. Yeah."
She also said, on a more serious note, and with unmistakable pride in her voice: "After I win the match I was feeling, 'Wow. . .I can play semi in Roland Garros.' I never think about that before. So many people think I'm not so good in clay court, but I think now they should change (their view) a little bit."
Has it occurred to anyone else that Li is a little cocky, in a way not unlike, say, Martina Hingis, rather than merely shy and challenged in a tongue not her own? That wouldn't trouble me unless she overdid it, but "cocky" is a quality that doesn't usually factor into that sentimental view we like to take toward people whom we think have "exotic appeal." Those recipients of our affection are expected to be charming, wide-eyed, naive and, preferably, docile; I'm not sure Li is any of those but charming.
But for a few weeks now, Li's mostly been deadly. Her game these days tempts hacks like me to reach for similes invoking the Great Wall of China, because her defenses have been nothing less then impregnable. She's served well; her motion is satisfying to behold. Li's game is classic—evocative of no one more than Chris Evert, although Li's power and sting are of a different order of magnitude. All that, and the only grunting you'll hear from her is an honest expression of the toll of her labor. She doesn't shriek like a scalded cat every time she hits a puffball second serve, or routine backhand. She's silently deadly, and Azarenka can attest to that. As she said after the match, "She was a better player today. She played very well in the important moments."
Those of you who have put in some time trying to master this ridiculous game may remember some arthritic old fogey of a coach or intensely studious tennis nut refer to the importance of winning that "all-important seventh game." One of the things that always amused me about Billie Jean King is that, all her life, she's recited that mantra—probably because it was drilled into her as a kid. Well, just about any theory or maxim you come up is bound to be true at least some of the time (you know, it's the old even a blind pig finds an acorn sometimes syndrome), and that one hit the jackpot today.
This was an extremely well-played match by both women, and even though Azarenka recorded a break in the third game, Li immediately—and perhaps surprisingly, to Azarenka—broke right back. Each woman then held, after which Li served the seventh game. It featured four deuces and two break points for Azarenka. It also produced a little bit of everything, style and stroke-wise, all of it uncorrupted by even a trace of fear or hesitation on the part of either woman.
Incidentally, that's a tendency that was manifest in every WTA match I've watched here, and while this is best left for discussion at another time, I think there's far more great, compelling tennis being played today than ever before.
But anyway. . . the game was both representative (of the dazzling overall quality) and distinctive as what we might call the non-turning-point turning-point of this match. When Li held that "all-important seventh game" with a service winner to Azarenka's backhand, it was a statement of resolve on a day she would not be denied.
Having recognized this as the potential angle for my post today, I spent the ensuing dozen games of the set waiting for the theory to blow up in my face. But both women held fast until Li broke in the 12th game, thanks to three winners and an error by her opponent. It was official: Azarenka was the first to blink.
But the second set was just as tightly contested. The women exchanged breaks early, and then Li broke again to go up, 4-2. She held in the ensuing, second-most all-important-seventh-game of the match, and the pressure by that time was too much to bear for the dispirited Azarenka. She fought gamely, and saved a match point with a whistling, line-clearing bullet to Li's baseline. But Li would not panic.
"I was thinking why she didn't hit the ball out?" Li said. "The mark was half-in, half-out. I was like, 'Okay, if she hit this ball out I win the match.' But, you know, after I lose the point I was like, 'Okay, next one, next one.'
A monstrous forehand winner by Azarenka swept away the next match point, but in an impressive show of poise, Li converted the ensuing one when Azarenka blasted a backhand out to end yet another savage rally we saw today. Li allowed herself a little cry of delight, but demonstrations are not really her style. Like I said, she's silent-Li lethal.