First, there was a drastic drop in temperature on Tuesday, and a wind that swirled through Crandon Park. Each woman began at a deliberate pace, waiting for the breeze to die down before trying to toss their serves. It made for patchy, slow, rhythmless tennis for much of the afternoon, but it was Serena who managed it better, and that was one of the big differences in the match.
The two began by battling through long service games; it took 25 minutes to get the score to 2-2. Serena saved three break points in the opener, Li saved two in the next game. But by 2-2, Williams had reined her ground strokes in and found a safe pattern from the baseline. She was wrong-footing Li with her backhand down the line, and she had begun to use her slice serve to good effect. It trailed away from Li, who had trouble connecting on returns all day. A patient Serena held at love at 2-2 and 4-2, while Li, who twice double-faulted when she was down break point, struggled with her service toss.
Just when things looked under control, though, Williams began the second set by calling the trainer. She had a problem with her upper leg, and while she didn’t take a medical timeout, it did affect her play as the second set progressed. So much so that Williams, after going up 2-0, lost five straight games and was forced to save a set point at 2-5. Now it was Williams who was double-faulting when she was down break point and losing control of her backhand. The match looked destined for a third set, or even a retirement from an unhappy Serena.
“Looked” was the operative word in that last sentence. A lot of things that look like they might happen in matches involving Serena Williams or Li Na don’t end up happening. Li will regret letting Serena off the hook at 5-2. After Williams held, she had new life, and her old spirit. Suddenly she was moving better, hitting harder, and throwing in a few fist-pumps. She was off the mat yet again, and Li was in trouble.
The second set ended in a well-played, first-serve-heavy tiebreaker. Li came up with two big serves to lead 5-4, but Serena answered with two of her own for 6-5. The trials and tribulations ended with a Serena forehand pass winner for the match. As you can see from the photo above, she was pretty happy to get through this one.
As she had in the last round, a comeback win over Dominika Cilbulkova, Serena had drifted from hot to cold, from energized to sluggish. Both times, the thought of losing—a match to Cibulkova, a set to Li—helped focus her mind. Her opponents gave her just enough to keep her hopeful, and Serena took it from there. She’ll play the winner of Agnieszka Radwanska and Kirsten Flipkens in the semis. Serena has never played Flipkens. She’s 4-0 against Radwanska.