Australian Open: Li d. Sharapova

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MELBOURNE—Everything appeared to be breaking Maria Sharapova’s way. She had arrived here in intimidating form, winning her first two matches love and love and beating Venus Williams with nearly as much as ease in the third round. Then, yesterday, she had watched as her life-long nemesis, Serena Williams, the woman who was supposed to keep her from the title here the way she had kept her from an Olympic gold medal last summer, go out in the quarterfinals. 

It all seemed to be breaking Sharapova’s way, that is, until she hit the ball against Li Na today on a bright and hot afternoon in Rod Laver Arena. Her first serve made a strange sound as it came off of her strings, and landed discouragingly close to the bottom of the net. She missed her second as well. And her third. And her fourth. Tennis writers everywhere began to reconsider their stories: Had Maria been in killer form, after all, or had she not faced a stern enough test before the semifinals? She fell behind right away and was always on her heels, on the scoreboard and in the rallies. As Sharapova said afterward, she “didn’t make [Li] think about anything today.”

By the end of her 6-2, 6-2 loss, though, any story involving Maria had been rendered moot by the woman on the other side of the net. The fact that Li could power forehands and backhands past Sharapova wasn’t a surprise. Li has always been one of the game’s purest ball-strikers, especially on the backhand side. Nor was it a surprise that she could pound returns that backed her opponent up, and break her five times. Li has won a Grand Slam, and reached the final here in 2011.

The surprise, and what could be an interesting story going forward, was that Li’s early peak wasn’t followed at some point by a deep valley. That, once she had a lead, her swing didn’t get a shade shakier, her demeanor didn’t get a bit edgier. This has always been the way with Li; even when she’s played well in the past, she’s had to wade through her own bad patches to do it.

Today there were no bad patches. Li outhit one of the tour’s biggest hitters, beating her with superior depth, better counter-punching, and crisp line-drive winners to the corners. She and new coach Carlos Rodgirguez have been working on her serve and forehand, and they were standout shots today. Li hit 10 forehand winners, and frustrated Sharapova with her bending slice serve to her forehand side.

Li moves on to her second final here in three years. Some players, after a big win like this, struggle to put a coherent sentence together. Today Li, in her second language, had a joke for every question. She gave credit to Rodriguez, but also to the helpful people at Melbourne’s Crown Hotel, for giving her and her husband a bigger room this time, so she could sleep farther away from him, and not be woken up by his snoring.

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