Sometimes I think that Li Na is most comfortable, or at least most dangerous, when her back is flush against a wall. It often seems that she’s playing against a doubles team consisting of her opponent and herself. But pin her down, and this reluctant combatant turns into a hellcat.
Li put on another demonstration of that tendency today in her semifinal match with Agnieszka Radwanska in Sydney, in a battle between two women undefeated in 2013 (Li won last week in Shenzhen, Radwanska in Auckland). Down 3-6, 3-5 and working on reaching the 50 unforced error mark, Li suddenly found her range, her power, her legs—and her best stuff. She ended up fighting off seven match points in two games before capitulating, 6-3, 6-4.
Now it isn’t easy modulating your game, or degree of desire, at this time of year, having left too much on the practice or warm-up event courts. I can see why a player who’s tasted success and has a few matches under his or her belt might struggle with the mandate to give it all on a day when things just aren’t going well, knowing a big event is right around the corner. And in the beginning, things certainly weren’t going well for Li.
Broken right off the bat, Li did something you might have thought impossible: She not only made top seed and world No. 4 Radwanska look like a brilliant returner, she also made the Polish popgun look like an Olympian server. That’s right: Server. Time and again, Li’s inability to get into Radwanska’s service games only put more pressure on her to hold.
Li managed the assignment, although it was always an adventure, until the ninth game of the first set. She jumped out to a 40-love lead in that game, but three consecutive unforced errors (Nos. 19. 20, and 21) allowed Radwanska to reset to deuce.
Radwanska then played a point that illustrated why so many aficionados love her game. She pulled off a deft sneak attack and struck a neat backhand volley winner down the line. Although she didn’t convert the subsequent game point, she got the next one when Li ended a rally with a drop shot error. It was an odd choice of shot for a set point, and we’ll leave it at that.
The second set brought more of the same. Radwanska broke Li in the second game, but the former French Open champion broke her right back. However, Li was unable to hold her next service game, or even make a show of holding it—she lost the first three points in short order, and was only able to fend off the first two break points.
Up 3-1, Radwanska controlled the tempo and flow, and survived a minor crisis (three deuces and two break points) when she held the seventh game to lead, 5-2. Li then held, and that’s when things got a little western.
Serving for the match, Radwanska bolted to a 40-15 lead, but she made two uncharacteristic backhand errors to fall back to deuce. The effect on Li was striking—she began to lash out with her groundstrokes and found reserves of bounce in her legs. She brushed aside another two match points without interference from Radwanska, with a backhand down-the-line return winner and a forehand volley winner. When Li finally saw a break point after three deuces, she converted with another return winner.
Did Li want to stay in the match? Her head may have said, “yes,” but some other part of her said “no.” She won the first point serving at 4-5, but then looked awkward and slow failing to chase down a drop shot. A forehand error and a double fault put her back in the double match-point hole, but she belted her way out with a brace of backhand winners—one down the line, the other cross-court.
Another match point? No problem. Li smacked it away with a prodigious drive volley. But then Li’s reluctance returned. She hit a wild forehand out, and on the eighth match point, recklessly charged the net and got caught in no-man’s land, where she botched a pick-up volley to end the match.
I’m sure Li will look on the bright side and gladly accept the obligatory rest before the start of the Australian Open on Monday, while Radwanska is probably content to pay the price for her back-to-back finals, trusting that the confidence dividend will prove useful.