It’s never a great sign when your coach tips his head back, closes his eyes, and shakes his head in silent frustration. But that’s what Li Na would have seen if she’d glanced in her husband’s direction in the second set of her match in Istanbul today.
She wouldn’t have been surprised, either. This was one of those days for Li. She was in a winner-take-all situation in her match with Sam Stosur—the winner went to the semifinals, the loser ended her season. It had been a breakthrough year for each of these players; Li had won her first major, at the French Open, and Stosur had won her first at the U.S. Open. But it was Li who wrapped it up on a very grim note. She lost her sixth straight match to Stosur, and she lost it dismally, 6-1, 6-0.
Those scores are obviously embarrassing, but they may be topped in that category by another stat of Li’s today: She had four winners and 32 unforced errors. She missed from start to finish, from down the line forehands to crosscourt backhands. We know from her past losses that Li doesn’t like to play Stosur; the Aussie’s high-bouncing forehand gets up above Li’s shoulders, where she struggles to control the ball. Today Stosur was kicking that forehand high and deep from the beginning, and she wasted no time opening up the court with it. Once she was behind in a rally, Li had no answers, and no confidence that she could scrap her way back in. By the second set, it appeared that Stosur was reading her mind. She broke once by anticipating a crosscourt ball to her backhand and sending a perfect pass up the line. She broke again by doing the same thing from the forehand side.
The win puts Stosur in the final four at this event for the second straight year. Just as important, it keeps her momentum going after her Open win. Li and Petra Kvitova slumped after their Slam runs this year, but after a couple of stumbles of her own, Stosur looks like she'll end the season on an emotional high note, and hitting the ball as well as she ever has.
Still, this match was more about Li than Stosur. After splitting with her earlier this year, Li's last coach claimed that she has a self-destructive streak. If body language is to believed, there was evidence of it today. She was a picture of negativity throughout—Li moved from one point to the next mechanically and sat in stone-cold silence as her husband tried to give her a pep talk at the start of the second set. Judging by the look on her face as she listened to him, and by the bagel she subsequently received, there was nothing he could have done to help. He should have kept his eyes shut.