Montreal: Li d. Safarova

Sunday, August 12, 2012 /by

LiRRThere is a time and place for everything. Serving with a 5-1 lead in the final set of today's Montreal semifinal was not the time or place for Lucie Safarova.

A slicing first serve and timely forehand strikes helped the 23rd-ranked Czech build a commanding lead; a pressure-shortened swing and crumbling confidence conspired to make it collapse. In a Montreal meltdown that was painful to watch and surely stung deeply to experience, Safarova dissolved as a revived Li Na reeled off six straight games to complete one of the biggest comebacks of her career, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, and advance to the Rogers Cup final.

Credit Li, who has suffered her share of blown leads, for swinging freely when down and remaining committed to the comeback cause. But Safarova will be haunted by her implosion: She won just three points total in her final three service games and struggled to find the court. Safarova had this match in her hands, but was squeezing her grip too tightly to create closure.

Safarova's spot in the final appeared a foregone conclusion when the streaky Li sailed a second serve beyond the box, handing her opponent the second break and a 5-1 lead. The left hander was three points from the finish line when her nerve and swing began to shrink as she lost the shape of her backswing and the control of her shots. Three straight errors, including a wild forehand, gave Li the break and hope at 2-5.

In the ensuing game, Safarova was twice two points from the final, but Li landed her first serve and struck a backhand winner before unloading a forehand to hold for 3-5. Safarova had been sharp on serve for much of the match — she won 13 of 14 points played on her first serve and did not face a break point in seizing the first set — but her second bid to serve it out was brutal. Safarova looped a forehand deep, double faulted then flat-lined a forehand into net to donate another break. Betrayed by her forehand in the early stages of the set, Li found the range on that shot, ripping a forehand crosscourt and holding at 30 with a serve winner. Suddenly, it was 5-all.

At end of the second set, both women took coaching time-outs. Safarova, who has not beaten Li in seven years, losing 10 of the last 11 sets they played prior to today, smiled and seemed to relax after that coaching consultation as she fought off two break points to hold for 2-1 in the decider. Her failure to call out her coach and try to stall her free-fall proved fatal. Though she's a flat-hitter, Safarova can produce spin on the serve and forehand; rather than try to put more margin on her shots to regain her stroke and settle her nerve, she spiraled out in errors. Anticipating the wide serve, Li stepped into the court and unleashed a dagger of a forehand return down the line to break for 6-5 — her first lead of the last set — draining the last bits of Safarova's self belief.

Serving for the final at 30-all, Li shouted "Come on Li Na!" when the first of three Safarova retun errors ended it.

"A lot of people thought the match could be finished," Li told ESPN2's Rennae Stubbs afterward. "I was 5-1 down, I just [told myself] 'One more, one more, one more.' Suddenly, I was 6-5 up."

The 2011 French Open champion will play either 2011 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, another left-handed Czech, or former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, in the Monday night final. The 30-year-old Chinese is 2-1 vs. Kvitova and has won three of four meetings with Wozniacki.

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