MASON, OHIO—Li Na entered the Cincinnati final with a 4-1 record against Angelique Kerber, who took down the past two Wimbledon winners, Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova, just to make the final. Li Na hadn’t shown quite enough bite in letting Venus Williams back into their three-set semifinal last night, and so this match intrigued. And it largely did not disappoint, with Li clinching a 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory.
Kerber rushed to a 3-0 lead and Li played tactically deficient tennis for the set’s duration, letting go a dreadful drop-shot at 3-1, 40-0. One point later, she found herself down 4-1. If Kerber’s year to date were an album title, it’d be No Doubt’s Rock Steady. Li wasn’t playing poorly, but Kerber became an impregnable, one-woman fortress. This was a fortified castle on two sturdy legs, and she took the set, 6-1. Kerber doesn’t get enough credit for the force of her hitting—defender, pusher, wall, etc.—when the truth is that her backhand can be a bullet and, when the opportunity arises, she will clothes line a forehand, too.
Her coach, Torben Beltz, called encouragement constantly to Kerber from his perch just to my left in the photo pit. He joined her between sets, as did Li’s new coach, Carlos Rodriguez. Beltz told me that his player’s strategy for the match was to move the ball around and hit more to Li’s forehand. "The backhand is good," he said. To begin the second stanza, Li sought to come in and volley behind her shots, but she dropped serve. Still, she stuck with it, breaking back as the beneficiary of Kerber errors and her own untouched backhand drives.
But Kerber broke back for 2-1, and then enjoyed a 3-1 advantage courtesy of Li’s errors. At this point, Li began an aggressive campaign that showcased well-executed forehand swing volleys. She hit that shot successfully much of the rest of the way. After leading 6-1, 3-1, Kerber won just one more game, giving up 11 of the final 12. Li stepped up, and errors crept into the German’s game. Both rifled backhands at will in a marathon game at 4-3, with at least a half-dozen deuces giving way to Li seizing a 5-3 stranglehold on the set and, as it soon became obvious, the match itself. She served it out at 15, 6-3.
In the third set, Kerber did rely on pushing for the most part, but not by choice. Her coach refused Pam Shriver’s interview request, saying he wouldn’t talk until after the match, but he told me that Kerber’s right leg was hampering her movement. This hadn’t been the case before the match, Beltz said, but it was glaring for how Kerber ran to balls without gusto for the remainder of the match. Still, she didn’t retire. Beltz assured me that she wouldn’t. Li did she needed to, what she should have done against Venus the night before. She was ruthless, pushing her opponent around the court and lashing winners off of both wings. The third set—and the tournament—ended in a near-flash, 6-1.
Kerber enters the U.S. Open with much to prove. She has semifinal points to defend in New York, and she’s also the sole member of the WTA Top 10 to have not yet appeared in a Grand Slam final. That said, she was 0-11 against her Top 10 peers prior to 2012, and she’s 8-7 against them this year. With this win, Li herself beat back the ghosts of previous 2012 Premier-level finals this year that saw her lose thrice—to Victoria Azarenka in Sydney, to Maria Sharapova in Rome, and to Petra Kvitova in the Monday night Montreal final. Now the Cincinnati champ, she will answer a lot of questions about potential front-runner status as momentum goes into Flushing. Time will tell, and time—for these two pros and more—is short.