Li Na's 6-4, 6-2 win over Petra Kvitova in Istanbul on Saturday may have been surprisingly routine, but it was a milestone for her in more than one way. With it, Li accomplished a number of her goals, both for the day and for the 2013 season.
First and perhaps most important, Li kept Kvitova out of a third set; the Czech had won a tour-high 25 three-setters this year. Second, at age 31, Li reached the final of the WTA Championships for the first time in her career. Third, she secured a career-high No. 3 ranking, something she had been aiming toward since the start of the year. Fourth, Li passed Kimiko Date-Krumm to become the highest-ranked Asian player, man or woman, in tennis history. That last achievement might not have been on Li's list of objectives, but it won't look bad on her historical résumé, either. A dozen years into her career, she keeps quietly breaking glass ceilings.
Steadiness has been the key to Li's success in 2013. Famously streaky and prone to head-scratching slumps, she hasn’t lost before the quarterfinals at a tournament since the French Open. And consistency was the key again today: Li made 15 errors to Kvitova’s 29. That doesn’t mean the match didn’t have a few twists, turns, and momentum swings; it’s difficult to imagine a completely straightforward contest between these two whiplash-inducers. But whether it was a strong second serve, a quick reflex on defense, or a sharp angle that took her opponent off court, Li was able to find the right shots when she needed them. She converted six of 10 break points, and saved six of the nine that Kvitova earned against her. And while Li briefly brought back memories of blown matches past by double faulting on the first point at 5-2 in the second set, she steadied herself immediately and closed with ease.
Kvitova’s 2013 ends on a fairly high note. She has played her best tennis of the season since the U.S. Open. But inconsistency bit her again today. For one, she gave away too many points by missing returns on Li’s first serves. While Petra had more success when she took a step back in the second set, it seems to me that she could help herself by chipping some first serves back into play. This isn’t the Kvitova method, I know, and nothing is going to turn her into a percentage player. But she gave away a lot of points by taking big cracks at first serves.
Li’s season continues for one more match, against the winner of the other Istanbul semi, between Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic. Li says she’s reached her goals for the season. Can she set herself a new one on its final day?