If you saw the intense look of relief on Li Na’s face as she clasped Sabine Lisicki’s hand at the net after their match, and the deep way the crowd favorite exhaled as she proceeded to her chair to collect her things, you have a good idea of how much this China Open means to Asia's first Grand Slam singles champion.
The pressure on Li is stifling because the crowd is so nakedly pulling for her to win. It’s a tough position to be in, especially when, like Li in this match, you’re also the favorite to win. Li dealt with all of that admirably as she wrapped up a tight, workmanlike, third-round win over the German Wimbledon finalist, 7-5, 6-4.
WTA matches often feature numerous breaks of serve; thus the premium is on breaking the pattern and holding serve at those times when it seems like you’re doomed to get stuck in one of those wash-spin-rinse cycles. Li was able to do that in both sets, and it won her this match.
Lisicki served first and got off to a slow start, no doubt slightly cowed by the enthusiasm for Li. It isn’t easy to focus when people are cheering your unforced errors, but then it’s a part of the game every pro must master. Lisicki’s capitulation to the vibe got her into trouble, and Li’s sharply hit, unreturned forehand on break point secured her the first break.
The women then settled into a hold pattern until the 10th game, with Lisicki doing an excellent job staying on Li’s bumper. It paid off, as Li was unable to serve out the set. She flubbed her way to a 15-40 deficit, then put just one of three first serves into play over the ensuing points. On a day when Li scored liberally with her serve, this was a critical shortcoming. Lisicki earned the break for 5-all when Li hit a forehand out of the court after hitting one of those second serves.
Li seemed to collapse at that stage and quickly lost the next three points. But she pulled back from the brink of despair and managed to break right back by winning the next five points—thanks to a combination of Lisicki errors and a lone winner.
A tiebreaker seemed almost assured after those back-to-back breaks, but Li came up with one of those critical, pattern-breaking holds to win the set, once again capitalizing on Lisicki’s inconsistent serve return and weakness for the error. The set ended when Lisicki finished a cat-and-mouse rally by driving a forehand into the net.
In the second set, Li got herself into deep trouble in the second game, but roared back from a love-40 deficit to hold. The last four points in that game were Lisicki errors, three of them serve returns. Li then recorded the first break of the second set in the fifth game thanks to some versatile, unpredictable play. But she fell behind 15-40 in the next game and gave the break back when she mishit a forcing service by Lisicki.
Keeping her cool, Li broke right back for a 4-3 lead with serve—crunch time, right? She stepped up in a big way when she needed to and played one of her best games of the match. On the final two points of the game, from 30-15, Li struck a massive cross-court forehand and a stinging wide serve that Lisicki was unable to field.
Lisicki held for 4-5, and when Li fell behind 0-30 in the next game it appeared we might have a repeat of the first set. But Li won the next three points (two on Lisicki errors) to reach match point.
At that critical juncture, Li’s best weapon on the day, her first serve, deserted her. That enabled Lisicki to get a good look, and it paid off for her in a pair of break points. But an errant inside-out service return (Lisicki hit it way too hard) and a netted forehand eliminated those chances. Li then hit a crisp volley behind her opponent to earn her second match point, and converted it when Lisicki ended a brief rally by driving a backhand into the net.