Renovations to Arthur Ashe Stadium won’t include barricades around the baseline, but Serena has spent this U.S. Open boxing in opponents with blueprint precision.
Playing oppressive tennis, the world No. 1 has denied opponents' access to angles, imposing gridlock on tennis' largest Grand Slam stage. Williams has permitted just 13 games in five tournament victories, racking up shutouts in four of the 10 sets she’s played, including a crushing, 6-0, 6-0 quarterfinal dismissal of Carla Suarez Navarro. Serena looks driven to successfully defend the U.S. Open title for the first time, and here’s the frightening thought: She hasn’t fully unleashed her imposing first serve to full force yet.
Beating Serena in a Grand Slam semifinal is as tough as scaling the Unisphere in a single bound: She is 20-3 in major semis, with her last loss coming to Kim Clijsters at the 2009 U.S. Open, when she imploded after being hit with a foot-fault call.
Li must stay in step from the first ball to snap a seven-match losing streak against the top seed and reach her first Flushing Meadows final. When the current and former French Open champions face off, the sometimes combustible Li knows she must compete with clarity and calm—and be ready to run.
“If you only think about what opponent doing, of course you already lose the match before you come to the court,” Li said. “For tennis you have to figure out what you have to do on the court, what you should do.”
It starts with the serve. Li has hit a tournament-best 29 aces—eight more than Williams—and must serve boldly, as Serena has surrendered serve just once while breaking serve 25 times in 10 sets.
The fifth-seeded Chinese player is an exceptional athlete and one of the few women in the world who can run with Williams. Working with coach Carlos Rodriguez, who guided Justine Henin to four French Open titles, Li is applying her all-court skills more effectively. She's constructing sounder points and moving forward in the court more frequently, even reviving the rare serve-and-volley tactic in a 7-5, 7-5 loss to Williams in the Cincinnati semifinals a few weeks ago. Look for Li to try to assert her speed by attacking at times—and drawing Williams forward.
Movement can be critical to success against Serena in New York. Three of the last four women to beat her at the Open—Clijsters, Henin, and Amelie Mauresmo—were all very quick around the court. But Serena subdued perhaps the fastest woman in the game, Sloane Stephens, in the fourth round and is running well.
“I generally have been playing better defense this year, moving better, and just trying to be faster,” Williams said after sweeping Stephens.
Williams can transition from defense to offense with a single swing, can create sharper angles, and is the more accurate and explosive player when hitting on the run. Though the 16-time Grand Slam champion has dominated Li in the past, scratch beneath the scores and you see separation can be hard to create. Seven of the 21 sets they’ve played have been decided in tiebreakers—with Williams winning the last six—but Serena can sometimes crack from self-imposed pressure in New York. She wants so badly to play so well in her home major that she can stress and her shots can stray.
Li is dangerous driving the ball down the line, and she’ll need to hit the backhand with accuracy to pull off the upset. Net clearance and nerves are major challenges: The Australian Open runner-up is one of the flattest hitters in the game, playing with minimal margin over the net; when she gets tight, her drives can flat line into the top of the tape.
Williams plays with more spin on every shot, particularly the serve, and though Serena can lose the range on her forehand when she’s nervous, the fact she’s playing the deuce side in doubles with sister Venus means she’s getting plenty of practice hitting forehand returns. This semifinal should supply plenty of shotmaking dazzle, but Serena has too many weapons and too much Grand Slam success to falter against a very tough opponent.
The Pick: S. Williams in two sets
While Azarenka was busy cracking screaming shots en route to the 2012 U.S. Open final, Pennetta was preoccupied pushing buttons and shedding some tears.
Sidelined while recovering from right wrist surgery last September, Pennetta was armed with a remote control on her couch and watched Azarenka serve for the U.S. Open title before Serena Williams rallied for a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory. Pennetta, a former world No. 1 doubles player and Italy’s first Top 10 singles player, contemplated the bleak prospect that her career was over.
“[It] was not easy, I can tell you. I cry a lot,” Pennetta said. “But I love this sport. I would like to have a chance just to prove myself. I try my best.”
New Yorkers love to celebrate revivals, so you can bet the 83rd-ranked Pennetta will enjoy plenty of crowd support as she aims to prolong the tournament's feel-good story and become the first Italian woman to reach the Flushing Meadows final. She’ll probably need to play her best to make it.
The second-ranked Azarenka has not produced her peak performance yet, but she’s played tenacious tennis at crunch time. Commanding rallies from the baseline, Azarenka played her most complete match in defeating Daniela Hantuchova, 6-2, 6-3, to roar into her sixth semifinal in her last eight Grand Slam appearances.
Despite the 81-place disparity in their rankings, Vika will not look past Flavia. Pennetta won their lone prior hard-court meeting (6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-4 in Dubai two years ago), and unlike the last two former Top 10 foes Azarenka has beaten—Ana Ivanovic and Hantuchova—Pennetta is a fluid mover, capable of the counter-strike on the run. Azarenka has struggled on second serve and Pennetta is an accurate returner: Flavia has broken 28 times in the tournament, second only to Vika, who has broken serve 33 times.
Passion can be powerful fuel for players who have faced the career finish line. Kim Clijsters came back from left wrist surgery to capture her first major title at the 2005 Open, then made history as the first un-ranked wild card to win the Open in 2009. Marion Bartoli rebounded from foot and ankle injuries to snap a two-year title drought and win Wimbledon this summer. Pennetta has played some of her best tennis in New York, upsetting Maria Sharapova in advancing to the 2011 U.S. Open quarterfinals. She has not dropped a set in sweeping four straight seeds—Sara Errani, former U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Simona Halep, and Roberta Vinci—has shown shrewd court sense in combating a variety of different styles, and has been bold in hitting her two-hander down the line.
There was a time when opponents could hope Azarenka would physically fade or mentally fold. Times have changed. She’s toughened up considerably—Azarenka is 24-3 in her last 27 three-setters, including two three-set wins over Serena this year—and believes being fitter makes her sharper.
"I work a lot on my fitness," Azarenka said. "I feel like I develop every time I come back, especially after my last injury. I came back at another fitness level, and my physical ability has always helped me to play better tennis, because my movement is important—I feel like I have heavier shots now. I direct the ball better. I can maybe reach balls I wasn't really able to reach because of my flexibilty before.”
The 31-year-old Pennetta will be nervous playing for a spot in her first major final, but she’ll be pumped to continue this career-defining revival run. I am convinced she will expend every ounce of energy, compete with emotion, and exhaust every tactical option. I don’t doubt her commitment; I just don’t believe it will be quite enough.
Azarenka owns a WTA-best 30-1 record on hard courts in 2013, she’s a sniper on the return—Bartoli calls her “probably the best returner in the game”—and has a wider reach to redirect balls that eluded Pennetta's prior, shorter opponents. Vika is the younger, stronger player, and if she can tame her sometimes shaky second serve—Azarenka has hit a tournament-high 25 double faults—I believe she will advance to her fourth Grand Slam final.
The Pick: Azarenka in two sets