A Serena Williams-Li Na semifinal will be a mental test for both
Another day, another match, another beat down for Serena Williams. Is anyone surprised at this point? The killer serve (88% winning percentage on first serves), the wicked forehand (20 winners) and the high-pitched cacophony of "Come ons" are what we've come to expect from the 16-time Grand Slam winner and reigning U.S. Open champion. In a match that was over in just 52 minutes, before most fans at Arthur Ashe could make it through the turnstiles and be seated, the World's No. 1 took out 18th seed Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0,6-0 (on the Spaniard's 25th birthday nonetheless) in front of a muted crowd for a spot in the semifinals against fifth seed Li Na. Afterward, Williams smiled, while brazenly scaling the crowd as if to say, "Who's Next?"
Li, who earlier in the afternoon earned her first spot in an U.S. Open semifinal with a 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-2 win over No. 24-seed Ekaterina Makarova, will gladly step up to the net and take next, hoping to avenge her straight sets loss to Williams in last month's Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.
"At least I have two days off to prepare," said Li, who is 1-8 lifetime against Williams, her only victory coming in a 2008 match on clay in Stuggart. "It's tough, tough opponent. I know it."
Tough is an understatement when describing 2013's new and improved Williams who this season has won eight titles, is 65-4 and has yet to drop a set at this year's Open. Just ask the birthday girl if something other than "tough" comes to mind.
Suarez Navarro, whose powerful one-handed backhand has Justin Henin written all over it, entered the match playing some of the best tennis of her career, stunning 2012 U.S. Open semifinalist and eighth seed Angelique Kerber 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 in the round of 16. In that match, Suarez Navarro exuded all of the confidence of a top 20 player on the rise, keeping Kerber pinned against the baseline while scoring 121 points and hitting 47 winners. Against Williams, however, she wilted under the New York City lights, putting up little to no fight. She could muster no topspin on her backhand and hit just three winners while scoring a paltry 18 points against Williams' onslaught of offense. It was a swift and meticulous clinic for Suarez Navarro -- a not so happy birthday gift from the four-time Open champ.
The Williams-Li matchup on the other hand, (i.e. the battle of the 31-year-olds) should be more of a crowd-pleaser -- the type of thriller that fans were expecting in Williams' showdown with Sloane Stephens. Despite having a losing record against Williams, Li is not as easily intimidated by her grit and strength. The two have played a series of competitive, test-of-wills matches riddled with breathtaking rallies, superb shot making and lengthy tiebreaks. Like Williams, Li has one of the strongest forehands on the tour and when it's in full swing, it can bring her opponents to a standstill. In their meeting in Cincinnati last month, Li broke Williams' serve four times with her forehand and served for the set before succumbing to the weight of Williams' power and determination.
"She's been playing me really close," said Williams. "Who knows? Maybe the next time we play she might want to go from close to a win. I have to be ready for that."
While Williams' overall game is stronger and more fine tuned, Li moves well around the court and uses her power to hit out right winners, something that could frustrate Williams in lengthy rallies. Li can hit hard and flat from the back of the court and is adept at being aggressive on defense. However, she will need to keep her lapses in concentration to a minimum and develop some of Williams' ability to remain cool under pressure if she expects to win. Li's mental strength has often been her Achilles heel in matches as she sometimes lets self-doubt get in the way of her game plan. The 2011 French Open champ was admittedly jittery in her match against Makarova.
"I'm not so happy with the way I played today. Today's first time I was feeling so nervous. [It] started beginning of the match until end of the match."
It's hard to believe nerves will keep the World's No. 1 from being in top form as she looks ahead to Li. Barring injury, Williams' likely vulnerability (if there is one) would be fatigue as she is playing in her 15th tournament of year, the most of her career for a season.
Throughout this U.S. Open Williams has remained poised and focused, staring down opponents as if she were a world-class heavyweight champ looking to defend her title. Come to think of it, that's exactly what she is.