This is Plan B?

by: Peter Bodo | March 29, 2014

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MIAMI, Fla.—Ordinarily, when a player loses a set after leading 5-2, blame lies squarely on his or her shoulders.

But it’s a measure of just how explosive, just how dangerous, just how fearless, just how determined and just how gifted Serena Williams is that it was impossible to hold Li Na responsible for blowing a lead of that proportion in the first set of today’s WTA final on Key Biscayne.

Then, after what was once a two-break cushion turned into a hot seat, Li’s chances continued to head south until a final, unreturned Williams serve wide to the forehand side drove the final, unextractable nail into the coffin of the match. To Li’s credit, neither the first paragraph above nor the final score—7-5, 6-1—nor even the statistics suggests how gamely she resisted the fierce force that is Serena Williams.

The match ended just seconds shy of two hours. Li saved a dozen break points and, even after having that huge first-set lead yanked out of her hands, fought a spirited and often threatening guerrilla war. This was one of those matches that, instead of making you wonder where all the great women players have gone, left you shaking your head at the sheer inevitability of Serena Williams.

Li declared her intentions right off the bat, taking advantage of Williams’ difficulty finding the correct box with her first delivery. That was a confidence builder for Li, and over the ensuing games she played with impressive variety and precision.

In the fourth game, Li faced a crisis at 15-40, but she surged back with two outright winners. Williams pounded her way to another break point, but Li took care of that with an inside-out forehand winner and went on to hold for 3-1.

Mounting another assault, Williams held the next game easily. She then jumped to a 0-30 lead against serve, but once again, Li rose to the occasion. The next three points ended on Williams errors, but not before the extended, high-quality rallies that forced those misfires demonstrated Li’s mettle.

Williams hit low ebb in the next game. She fell behind love-40, fought back to deuce—then watched, stunned, as Li smacked a penetrating second-serve forehand return to Williams’ backhand corner. Williams got the ball back, but Li, moving forward, crushed sharply-angled backhand volley.

If you closed your eyes and just listened to the report, you would have thought it a Williams 120 M.P.H. serve, not a Li volley. Williams then double-faulted to give Li her second break, and a lead of 5-2.

It looked grim at that point for the No. 1 seed, but in Serena’s crazy world it was more like a whispered assurance: “Okay, Serena, you’ve got Li right where you want her.”

Or, as Li would say later, “Everything only looking great. Was not great.”

Williams rolled to a 0-40 lead in the next game and broke Li, then won four of the next five points to hold for 4-5. In the next game, Li reached set point at 40-30, but Williams produced a stunning down-the-line backhand winner to reset to deuce. After another deuce, Williams broke to even the set at 5-all when she nailed a backhand return that her besieged opponent subsequently drove into net.

Fully awake now, Williams held to take the lead for the first time, 6-5. She had a set point of her own, but Li boldly hit a down-the-line forehand and forced a backhand error. But by then, the pressure Williams was applying began to show.

The telltale sign: Li started having trouble controlling her forehand. Although she extended that final game of the first set through six deuces, Williams finally won it on a dipping forehand pass that Li, her racquet scraping the court, volleyed into the net.

Where did Li think she went wrong?

“Is not wrong,” said Li. “I don't think I was play bad. So, yeah, maybe she just start a little bit better after 5‑2 down. Really nothing to say. I don't think today I was doing like a wrong game plan, or I was play totally wrong. I think it was pretty good match. Yeah. What I think.”

To make a long and by now familiar story short, Williams then rolled through the second set. Yet even then she had to pay close attention, because this was a day on which she had trouble firing her customary flurry of aces. She had just three, and put only 42 percent of her first serves into play.

Given the strength of Williams’ serve, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that she’s over-reliant on the shot. But this day was won mainly by Williams’ explosive ground game, her reliable service return, and her ability to engage in warp-speed rallies—and still find a way to end so many of them with a terrific placement. All that, against one of the most mobile and versatile of rivals. As Serena said afterward:

“I think that's what I've mostly been able to develop in my game (over the years). If my serve wasn't going great (before), my whole game kind of went down. And I think now if my serve isn't great, it's okay because I have a great forehand, I have a great backhand, I have great speed. If push comes to shove, I will (even) come to the net. I have so many things that I want to have a backup plan.”

If this is Serena’s Plan B, it’s going to be another long and frustrating year for the Azarenkas and Radwanskas of this world.

Li at least is a realist. She more or less shrugged when she contemplated the panoply of Williams’ weapons and remarked: “Yeah. At least I try so many things, like come to the net, return volley. So it's not bad, really.”

Li had good reason to treat the loss philosophically, and at age 32 she’s learned how to roll with the punches, on and off the court. Williams is the same age, but still doing a lot less rolling and a lot more punching than any of her competitors. But the two women found common ground when it comes to their—let’s call it their “maturity”—as they shared big smiles and a few laughs on the trophy presentation dias after the match.

“I don't know her that well,” Williams confessed, reflecting on those moments. “But I just feel a connection with her that I just love. I just really like her as a person and as a player, and I have so much respect for her.”

Li is by nature more direct, and less inclined to get all misty-eyed about such things. “We were talking about for sure before the match they say, ‘Oh, two old women come to the final.’ Yeah, we were a little bit laughing about our age.”

Neither of these ladies, ranked No. 1 and 2 in the world, appears ready to collect a pension any time soon. In fact, in different ways both are enjoying late-life love affairs with the game.

Partly because of the disadvantages inherent in becoming the first Chinese player to break into the upper echelon of tennis, Li has been on an amazing, continuing educational journey. Doesn’t it seem that she’s still figuring it out, and that perhaps the best is yet to come?

“I’m a young 32,” said Li. “I really feeling now tennis is changed a little bit, because it’s not only about technique.”

As for Williams, her learning curve may be complete, but not every box on her to-do list has been checked off. She mentioned that there still many records out there, but when she was pressed to name a few she might have in her sights, she turned coy.

“There is a lot of records out there,” she said, smiling so provocatively that I expected her to start batting her eyelashes. “Who knows if I'm ever gonna catch it? But at least I know that while I'm still playing well and still healthy, I can try. If not, at least I know I did try. I think that keeps me going.”

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