MASON, OHIO—From the start, the Cincinnati semifinal between Venus Williams and Li Na was different. In her previous match against Samantha Stosur, Venus began with two aces. In this one, she chucked in a pair of double faults. It showed even in the warm-up that she was stretching her back a bit. She proceeded to take a lot off of her first serve soon enough, and ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, beside me in the photo pit, launched into talk of an injury. Shriver spoke with Venus’s coach David Witt courtside, and he then took to encouraging his charge with phrases like "Good play, way to move up" and "Put the work in here." Even so, she double-faulted five times in the set.
In the midst of this, Li Na was hardly cutthroat. Still, she prevailed, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1. Venus’s forehand was not at all the weapon that she wielded against Stosur. "Too flat," she complained to herself as she sent one shot long to give Li 5-3 in the opening set. Two errors from the Chinese gave Venus 0-30 at 5-4, and it seemed that if anyone could manage to go off the rails at this point, it was indeed Li.
But she didn’t. Venus did break for 5-all, nicking both lines with a backhand and hitting another winner of the same stripe. Li Na uncoiled her tension to take the final two games for 7-5. Still, it shouldn’t have been that close. She ran out of challenges, and her mental walkabouts may not be fixable by way of any new coach, and not the one she is debuting in Cincinnati, Carlos Rodriguez. She repeatedly shot glances to him (and her husband) when in her near-baseline corner.
Venus’s ground game became more penetrating and forceful in the second set, but she could not serve with power, as many first and second attempts landed at 75 mph or lower the rest of the match. She called the trainer for a medical timeout to knead her back, down 1-2 in the second set. Meanwhile, sister Serena Williams laughed along as the Center Court Kiss-cam turned on two camera men. The audience lapped that up, also singing along cheerily to "Sweet Caroline" during the break. This scene made for quite the dichotomy as juxtaposed with Venus’s injury session.
After the medical timeout, Venus was better. She broke with the aid of Li Na’s double fault and down-the-line backhand missiles. She then held courtesy of nothing spectacular for a 3-2 advantage. With that, we had a Li Na mini-implosion. And Venus continued to hit great off the ground, seizing the second set with a shout, 6-3. At this point, her three-set record seemed to come in to play: 8-1 on the year, and 3-0 just this week.
Still, Venus regressed at the start of the third set. She lacked the intensity shown in taking the previous set, and Li went up 3-1 on her opponent’s errors. Li also punished short balls mercilessly, and Venus later told the press that her back started hurting on her ground strokes as well as her serve midway through the final set. The American was on defense constantly in the third, and she eased in first and second serves as slow as 64 mph, though she proudly noted later that she was still reaching 90 mph at times. She also charged for a few swinging volleys as in days gone by, but it was too late. Li won the match in two hours and nine minutes. And an ace remains the most stylish way to end a match.
Now Li can dispatch the hex that has plagued her in 2012: She is 4-0 in semifinals this year, but 0-3 in finals to date. Petra Kvitova or Angelique Kerber lurks in the final. The former topped Li last weekend in Montreal. Each is a lefty, which Li mentioned later she did not look forward to, having played right-handed foes all week. She must make do or else keep paying dues.