MIAMI, Fla.—Palm Beach Gardens resident Serena Williams has treated the Crandon Park stadium like her backyard court in reaching nine Sony Open finals, and says the sight of family and friends in the crowd inspires a sense of single-minded focus.
"I have so many friends here and it's the worst when you lose in front of your friends and they kind of give you a sympathy hug," Serena said. "I just don't want the sympathy. I kind of have only one choice and that's to win."
Beating Serena at Crandon Park has been as easy as leaping the Rickenbacker Causeway in a single bound. The six-time champion carries a .903 winning percentage in Miami into Saturday's final against Australian Open champion Li Na, their fifth meeting in the past 12 months.
The 32-year-old veterans are separated by just one spot in the rankings, but Williams has not permitted the second-ranked Li to close the gap on court. Since Li beat Serena at the 2008 Stuttgart event, Williams has won nine straight matches to take a commanding 10-1 stronghold in their head-to-head series.
Elevating her game throughout the tournament, Williams delivered her most dynamic serving performance in a nine-ace effort as she rallied from a break down in both sets to roll over Maria Sharapova, 6-4, 6-3, in the semifinals. Asked afterward to identify her toughest opponent, Serena suggested she sees her in the mirror.
"I always feel like anyone that I play, you have to be ready to play," said Williams, who has beaten Li in two prior Miami meetings. "You have to be ready to play no matter if you're playing the person that's ranked 200 or whether you're playing the person that's ranked No. 2. You have to show up and if you don't show up, then your biggest threat will be yourself."
Bursting out to a 21-2 start this season, the sometimes combustible Li has worked with coach Carlos Rodriguez to try to channel big-match pressure into positive energy: She survived a match point in the Australian Open third round en route to her second career Grand Slam title in January, and enters this final fresh off demanding victories over 11th-seeded Caroline Wozniacki (7-5, 7-5 in the quarterfinals) and 10th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova (7-5, 2-6, 6-3) in the semifinals.
"I think mentally, really, [Rodriguez has helped me most]," Li said after her semifinal victory. "For me, [he is a good coach] because he is the first coach I talked to after every match...When Carlos jump to my team, I was feeling more relaxed, more I can enjoy the tennis life. I was not like stress anymore."
An agile player skilled at driving the ball down the line, Li is one of the few women who can run with Williams in baseline exchanges, and has used her kill shot, the two-handed backhand, to wrong-foot the top seed in the past. But when pressure constricts her right arm, Li can lose the circular shape of her swing on the forehand and serve, and sometimes flatten those shots into net. Look for Williams to try to vary the depth and angle of her cross-court forehand in an effort to compel Li to hit her weaker wing on the run.
Given her past futility against Williams, Li would be best served trying to attack Serena from the outset rather than being forced on the defensive in the forehand exchanges. That's been the case in their recent meetings, as Williams has won 18 of the last 20 sets the pair have played.
It remains to be seen whether Li, who used the selective serve-and-volley play in her 7-5, 7-5 loss to Williams in Cincinnati last August, can sustain the attacking style necessary to threaten Serena.
"This time here really can see here [I] can really see how I improved for this three or four months," Li said. "[It is] a very good challenge for me. I'm really happy I can play against her again."
But tennis isn't always the primary topic on the table when Williams and Li get together.
"We talk a little bit about nails," Li said.
Certified nail technician Serena has polished off the two-time Grand Slam champion throughout this rivalry because she is the more explosive server, she's more balanced of both wings, and plays with more spin on all her shots. Williams has been more authoritative en route to the final, and she is the pick to collect her record-extending seventh Miami title.