A sparse crowd created a sterile atmosphere for today's match on Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario stadium court. None of that mattered much to Li, who faced a 1-3 second-set deficit by tugging her visor down, narrowing her focus, and reeling off five of the last six games to conquer Kerber, 7-5, 6-4, and advance to her fourth consecutive quarterfinal. The reigning Roland Garros champion rewarded the few fans who stayed throughout by flinging her blue towel into the stands as a memento.
There have been times when, after throwing away break-point chances, Li's composure has been collateral damage. One of the most encouraging aspects for Li today was that despite a three-for-12 conversion rate on break points, she didn't let the misses linger, and got right back to the business of breaking.
The eighth-seeded Chinese saved a break point in the opening game, as the server maintained control throughout the first nine games. Li, who won 15 of 28 points played on Kerber's second serve, punished a penetrating return cross-court to earn set point at 5-4 and was in prime position to end it at net, but bungled a routine backhand volley. Kerber saved a second set point when Li netted a backhand return, eventually holding for 5-5. Two games later, Kerber erased two more set points, only to then hook a forehand wide. The German can curl her lefty forehand cross-court to drag opponents off the court into defensive positions, but Li's two-handed backhand is her most reliable weapon, and she cracked one that a lunging Kerber could not track down to collect the opening set in 46 minutes.
The 14th-ranked Kerber, who swept Li in the Indian Wells quarterfinals in March, steadied herself. She broke at 30 to open the second set, fought off three break points to consolidate for 2-0, then held at love to extend the lead to 3-1. But striking shots with conviction, Li drew successive forehand errors to earn triple break point in the sixth game, and broke back for 3-3 when Kerber missed yet another forehand.
Kerber, who had played with the lead the entire second set, lashed a return down the line to earn a break point in the ninth game, but Li denied it and held with a pair of winners for 5-4. Li hit more than twice as many winners (29 to 14) in the match and benefitted from a net cord backhand before sealing a one hour, 25-minute win when Kerber netted successive backhands.
When she's tight, Li's flatter forehand can sometimes stray, but she produced the right balance between aggression and control in beating Kerber for the fourth time in five matches. Next up for Li is either world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka or 13th-seeded Ana Ivanovic in what could be a clash of former French Open champions.