Serena Williams jumps for joy after clinching the title at the Sony Open. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
No. 1 Serena Williams rallied from a lethargic start to defeat No. 2 Li Na 7-5, 6-1 on Saturday for her record seventh Sony Open title.
After trailing 2-5 in the first set, Williams reeled off 11 of the final 12 games to win her 59th career title and second of the season. She joined Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert as the only players to win a tournament seven times.
Li served for the first set twice after opening a double-break lead. Her game didn't waver, but Williams simply lifted her performance just in time to run away with the match, the first between them this season.
"She started out so well," Williams said. "I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, if I can just hang in there.' Then I heard some fans trying to pull me through.... At that moment, I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was able to relax. And whenever I relax, I enjoy myself."
It was a positive four weeks in North America for Li, who made the semifinals in Indian Wells and her first Premier Mandatory final in Miami, but the gap in power and consistency between the WTA's No. 1 and No. 2 showed on Saturday. Williams improved to 11-1 against Li and extended her winning streak against top-10 players to 15 matches.
Game-by-game analysis below.
3:28 p.m. ET | Serena Williams defeats Li Na 7-5, 6-1 to win her seventh Sony Open title.
Easy consolidation for Serena and she closes out Li easily to win her record seventh title in Miami. It's her 59th career title and second of the season to go with the Brisbane International. After falling behind 5-2 in the first set, Serena lost just one game, winning 11 of the last 12.
Match highlights below:
Let the celebration begin:
Strong tournament for Li, who had never made it past the quarterfinals here. Overall, she had a very good Indian Wells-Miami swing, making the semifinals and final.
"I think only one [thing is missing]," Li says of her Miami fortnight. "I should have gone [to] party last night."
This photo says it all:
Final stats for what was a very good women's final. Serena got better and better as the match wore on, finishing with 29 winners and 29 unforced errors. That's impressive, given she was minus-6 in winners to unforced errors after the first set. One more notable stat that isn't shown below is that Li was more successful on second serve than first serve. Serena was dialed into her first-serve returns, and it wouldn't surprise me if that's because Li was serving much safer to avoid having to go to her second serve.
3:07 p.m. ET | Williams breaks, leads *5-1.
Another tough service game for Li, but she's actually had a good serving day by her standards. Good percentage (over 60 percent) and minimal double faults (just three). That does make me think she's not going for enough on her first serve, though. She's actually winning fewer points off her first serve (47 percent) than her second serve (56 percent). If she's serving at her best with respect to pace and placement, that shouldn't be the case. It's understandable that she'd want to minimize Serena's looks on her second serve.
Li looked to finally get out of the game with a hold, hitting an ace on game point. But Serena issues a rare challenge and boom:
The game continues -- for more than 13 minutes total, actually -- and that Hawk-Eye challenge proves huge for Serena. She finally gets another break thanks to some really good hitting and returning. She's not just finding the power but also the depth, and too often Li has been caught trying to hit reflex pick-ups from inside the baseline, as the ball is coming back to her before she's even ready.
2:51 p.m. ET | Williams breaks, leads 4-1*.
Ouch. Li throws in a vintage game and when we're talking about Li, that's not a good thing. She builds a 40-love lead and looks to be cruising to a hold. Then hits a forehand error, double-fault, forehand error and a kamikaze net rush to get passed, and then finishes it off with yet another forehand error on a mid-court ball to get broken. With Serena up a set and a break, you have a feeling this is now going to go very, very quickly.
Serena holds in a blink.
2:40 p.m. ET | Williams holds, leads 2-1*.
Can Li rebound from that set? As Mary Joe Fernandez says on ESPN, she didn't lose that set so much as "it got ripped away from her." This is why I don't think it's entirely fair for players to get criticized for not having the belief when they face Serena. Her better is better than everyone's better, and if she's clicking no one has an answer. Your only hope is to take the opportunities that arise when she's not playing well. Li did that to build her 5-2 lead, but Serena found her rhythm just in time.
Six straight games to Serena as she starts the second set with a hold. But Li stops the skid with a hold of her own at 30.
Serena has to deal with a deuce game on her serve but she finally serves her way out of it. Funny moment in that game as Li saves a game point with a pretty good Hawk-Eye challenge that was called out. Wry smile from Li, especially after missing a key Hawk-Eye challenge so badly in the final game of the first set.
2:26 p.m. ET | Serena Williams wins the first set 7-5.
Now it's Li's turn to save set point at 30-40, with a well-placed forehand down the line. Nice shape on that shot from Li. A year ago, she would have gone for the outright flat winner. And missed.
But it's a marathon game that lasts more than 11 minutes and includes six deuces. Serena saves three game points; Li saves two set points. But on her third set point, Serena hits a great backhand passing shot that dips low and Li can't get the forehand pick-up volley over the net.
Huge roar from Serena and well-deserved. She just came back from a double-break deficit of 2-5 to reel off five straight games. And she did it not because Li went off the boil, but because Serena elevated her game and simply outplayed her opponent.
First-set stats. The unforced errors are always going to be high for Li, but really, not that bad of a set from her. As for Serena, there's definitely room for improvement. And that has to be so disheartening for Li.
2:10 p.m. ET | Williams breaks and holds, leads 6-5*.
Sure enough, Li can't serve it out, but it's not because she choked. Serena raises her level by five notches and the two play the best game of the match. At 30-30, Li earns set point on a tricky pickup forehand that she's able to get back into the open court. That's when Serena wakes up.
Down set point, she hits huge backhand down the line for a winner. At deuce, she crushes a 77 mph forehand cross-court return for a winner. Li responds with a great serve down the tee, but Serena's return is finally dialed in. She's starting to get the better of Li in the baseline rallies and she finally breaks.
Her hitting partner, Sascha Bajin, liked it:
Serena keeps the momentum into her service game and consolidates easily. It's been a tough few games for Li, who's gone from serving for the set twice to serving to force a tiebreak. That's four straight games she's lost.
1:58 p.m. ET | Williams breaks, trails 5-3*.
Insurance break, indeed. Li serves for the set and falls behind 0-40. She saves the first with a backhand winner down the line, then saves another when Serena goes too big on a backhand and sends it just long. But Serena finally converts when Li sends in a puffer of second serve, and Serena crushes it up the middle right at Li's feet. Li can only deflect it long.
Serena holds at 15 and Li will try to serve it out again. Here is exclusive footage of Li Na's box on the changeover:
Here we go...
1:51 p.m. ET | Li breaks again, leads *5-2.
This match is being decided by the smallest of margins. Another tight service game, this time for Li, gets to 30-all, but now it's Serena with the unforced error, hitting a forehand into the net. She lets out a yelp, and that's all the breathing room Li needs. She converts game point when Serena gets twisted up by a looping backhand ball and shanks it wide.
The woes continue for Serena, though all credit to Li, who is playing a solid and contained first set. For someone who can leak unforced errors in bunches, she's been pretty clean by her standards. She earns three break points at 0-40 on Serena's serve. Serena erases all three, saving the second with the cleanest ball she's hit all day, a crunching backhand down-the-line winner. She follows that up with her biggest serve of the match to get to game point.
But we're back at deuce and Li earns her fourth break point of the game with a great close on the net, finishing with a great backhand volley. The camera cuts to her box and her husband smiles and claps while coach Carlos Rodriguez sits stoically under his hat. Oh, come on, Carlos. You know you liked that one.
Serena double-faults on break point. There's the insurance break for Li. She'll get at least two chances to serve for the set.
Serena barely breaks a sweat while stretching to reach this backhand. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
1:39 p.m. ET | Li holds, leads *3-2.
Huge hold from Li, who summons her best tennis to save three break points. She falls behind 15-40, hits a backhand winner to save the first and then constructs a great point, opening up the court with her backhand, to save the second. She does the same calm point construction to save a third break point and finally holds when Serena hits a forehand return wide.
Serena responds with a hold at 30. The game went to 30-all, but a backhand error from Li helped let Serena off the hook.
1:26 p.m. ET | Williams holds, trails *2-1.
ESPN's Darren Cahill says Serena was spotted yesterday wearing a lot of tape on her legs, but her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, assured him it was just normal wear and tear.
Another deuce game on Serena's serve, and Li has an opening to earn another break point with a forehand down the line, but she's late on it and sends it wide. That was a huge miss.
Serena finally gets on the board on another two-deuce game after Li hits a return long.
Stat of the match so far: Serena has eight unforced errors.
1:21 p.m. ET | Li breaks, leads 2-0*.
Odd game from Serena as she takes to the line to serve into the wind. Li is handling the returns well and forcing Serena to play through the rallies, and the American is hitting far too many errors, especially off the forehand. She double-faults to give Li her first break point of the match.
Serena saves the point and follows it up with a huge forehand winner to earn game point. Then she ... changes her racket? Close-ups from ESPN show the top of the frame had cracked.
The new racket doesn't help. Serena makes too many errors, and Li breaks and then consolidates at 15.
1:10 p.m. ET | Warm-up
This is the first meeting between Serena and Li this season, and as Li's coach Carlos Rodriguez says, here's hoping for a good one.
“What we are working on is for her to show her opponent that she wants it, really wants it, and tonight [against Dominika Cibulkova in the semifinals] she didn’t,” he told The New York Times. “Against Serena, I really hope she’ll recover from this match and show something good above all for herself but also for everyone. Because a final between No. 1 and No. 2, you want it to be a good match, a high-quality match.”
Li has the quality to challenge Serena. She has the defense to track down balls and the firepower off both wings to keep the American on her heels. I believe her cross-court backhand is the best in the game -- Serena hits bigger, but Li can get a fantastic angle on it to open up the court -- and if she can combine that with her forehand down the line, she's got a good shot. The big issue for Li, as it is for nearly ever woman on tour, is the serve. If she's not serving well, Serena will roll. She'll gobble up Li's second serve all day.
ESPN's Darren Cahill reports that it's "very hot, very humid" on the court. The wind is also always an issue.
Serena won the toss and will serve.
No. 1 Serena Williams will meet No. 2 Li Na in the final of the Sony Open on Saturday. ESPN2 will televise the match, which is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. ET.
After a sluggish start to the Miami tournament, the six-time champion Williams scored straight-set victories over ninth-ranked Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals and No. 7 Maria Sharapova in the semifinals. The 32-year-old Williams rallied from a break down in both sets against Sharapova to extend her winning streak against the Russian to 15 matches. Williams is seeking to join Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Chris Evert as the only players to win a tournament seven times.
"I have so many friends here, and it's the worst when you lose in front of your friends and they give you like a sympathy hug," Williams said. "I just don't want the sympathy. I have only one choice, and that's to win."
Li, on the other hand, has advanced past the quarterfinals here for the first time in eight appearances. The Australian Open champion beat Melbourne runner-up Dominika Cibulkova 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 in the semifinals, coming back from a break down in the third set.
Williams is 10-1 against Li, whose only victory came in 2008. Serena won all four meetings last year, the most recent being a 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory in the final of the WTA Championships in October.