There are a number of things a player can try in hope of disrupting the rhythm and progress of an excellent player at or near the top of her game. But for some reason Flavia Pennetta didn’t attempt any of them in her Aussie Open quarterfinal, and Li Na rolled through her, 6-2, 6-2.
This was a match that reminded us of an essential cruelty of Grand Slam tennis. Here was Pennetta, (presumably) flush with pride and satisfaction after having achieved, at the age of 31, her first Australian Open elite eight. And she made it that far on the strength of some fine tennis, including her fourth-round upset of No. 9 seed Angelique Kerber.
Her reward for one of the better weeks of her life was a match that was quickly exposed as a mis-match, and not in her favor, fated to play out before as vast a collection of fans as has ever seen her play. Perhaps it was a bad sign going in that the well-liked veteran showed up for the match in a garish yellow-and-white fluffy-puffy outfit that looked like the kind of bad dress an insecure 17-year old might choose to wear to the prom. (Jon Scott, who runs The Daily Spin, disagrees with my assessment.)
It quickly became apparent that Li’s game was dialed in today, and she broke convincingly in the very first game. Not so fast, Pennetta seemed to say in the next game, as she promptly pushed Li to offer a pair of break points. But Pennetta was unable to capitalize on either of them, and after Li held for 2-0, the floodgates burst open.
In the blink of an eye, it seemed, Li had belted her way to 5-0, playing drop-dead gorgeous tennis. She was quick to the ball, often seeming to envelope it more than merely strike it. She demonstrated that during a point, a tennis court offers up any number of interesting angles to exploit, even if the vast majority of players are generally incapable of reading the blueprint.
It only added to Pennetta’s troubles that her game matches up nicely with Li’s, but not in a favorable way. Pennetta likes to draw nice, graceful parabolas with her shots, the spinning ball gradually rising and dropping back down like a parenthesis mark turned on its side. Li, by contrast, likes to fire shots that have little spin and fly flat, like well-aimed bullets. When Li misfires, she’s in big trouble. When she’s on target, watch out.
Still, Pennetta bravely saved two set points with Li serving for the first set at 5-0, and managed to break serve. In the next game, the count went to deuce, but Pennetta pulled it out with an ace and a backhand service-return error by Li.
At that point, veteran Li watchers could be forgiven for wondering if Li was suddenly going to indulge her healthy appetite for perversity and allow Pennetta back into the match. They breathed a sigh of relief when Li served out the set in the next game without incident.
It went from bad to worse for Pennetta after that. She gave up a break in the first game of the second set, via a double fault. Li held easily for 2-0, and broke again when Pennetta netted a rally backhand. As Li climbed to 4-0, it became manifest that Pennetta was content to slug it out with her, despite the mauling she was taking (at that stage, Li was winning points at close to 2 to 1 clip).
Having once been part of the world No. 1 doubles team (w/Gisela Dulko), Pennetta knows how to volley and hit approach shots. She also knows how to lob, and has pretty good all-around feel for the ball. Why she chose not to dip into her arsenal in an attempt to halt Li’s momentum will remain an enduring mystery. She was lucky to win two games (both on serve) from 0-4 down to make the final score appear a tad more respectable.
Stat of the Match: Pennetta had an abysmal night at the service notch, putting just 39 percent (21 of 54) of her first serves into play.