For both reasons, it’s worth hoping that these two 32-year-olds—who are separating themselves from the rest of the WTA much like Rafa and Nole have done in the ATP—will meet again soon. Yes, Williams improved her career record against Li to a lopsided 11-1 with a 7-5, 6-1 win, but compelling tennis has become as common in this rivalry as an eventual Serena victory.
Discounting their semifinal in last year’s U.S. Open, which Williams won 6-0, 6-3, every one of their match-ups has either gone three sets or featured a set that lasted to 7-5 or beyond. Today’s strenuous set, which clocked in at 73 minutes longer than both of yesterday’s men’s semifinals, was one of their best if most unconventional.
Li took a 5-2 lead on the strength of her versatile and forceful groundstrokes. She curled backhands to find obscure angles, flattened out her forehands when openings existed, and pinned Serena back as much as possible with deep shots. She also, obviously, returned serve like few others have against Serena.
But we’ve seen double-break leads vanish before in the pros, and often when Serena is the one facing the deficit. She not only matched Li’s two breaks with two of her own, she did her one better after winning a 12-minute game on her fourth set point, when Li couldn’t handle a low volley after some dexterous defense.
Li certainly should take some fault for her inability to convert from such an advantageous position, but this was a high-quality set—and match—won rather than lost. For Li earned a set point of her own at 5-4, erased by a screaming Serena backhand winner. The marathon 12th game was pivotal, but Li will rue that earlier chance, even if there was little she could do about it.
You’d think that, after such a letdown, Li would have little left for the second set, and in this case you’d be right. Serena’s strong returns persisted while Li’s consistency was checked at the door. The combination was lethal, and further amplified by Serena’s improved serving. Paying homage to the Miami Dolphins in an orange and teal set, Serena, hitting her spots with accuracy and pace, looked like the quarterback her NFL team has been searching for since Dan Marino.
Nonetheless, Li made Serena work for the win. Serena’s first break was captured from 40-0 down, and she needed five break points before taking a 5-1 lead. There would no collapse from on high this time, as Serena aced Li for her seventh title in South Beach. Damon Huard, Jay Fiedler, Ray Lucas, Brian Griese, A.J. Feeley, Sage Rosenfels, Gus Frerotte, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper, Cleo Lemon, Trent Green, John Beck, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Moore, and Ryan Tannehill, eat your heart out.