Li rallies to beat Kerber for Cincinnati title
China's Li Na was finishing lunch when the men's final at the Western & Southern Open ended with Roger Federer posing for photos and raising the pottery trophy for the fifth time.
She tried to imagine how it would feel.
"I was thinking, `OK, I really want to do the same,''' she said.
A few hours later, she did it all, and more.
Li overcame an awful first set to win her first title of the season on Sunday, beating Germany's Angelique Kerber 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 in the final of the Western & Southern Open.
For Federer, it was a record fifth Cincinnati title. For Li, it was her first title anywhere since her breakthrough season in 2011, when she won at Sydney and the French Open. Three times this season, she made it to the finals of a tournament. All three times, she lost in three sets.
"So I was really hungry for the title,'' she said.
Li pumped her fist when she finished off another three-set title match, this time coming out on top. She posed for the photos, just like Federer, then raised the trophy.
Finally, she headed to a corner of the court to sign her name dozens of times on those large yellow tennis balls made for autographs. KC and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way (I Like It)'' blared through the stadium.
Li was in no hurry to move on.
"I think it's a very good beginning,'' she said.
The final featured players who knocked the Williams sisters out of an already depleted tournament. Defending champion Maria Sharapova dropped out before the start because of a stomach illness.
Kerber and Li gave the tournament two of its twists.
Kerber, ranked No. 7 in the world, ended Serena Williams' 19-match winning streak in the quarterfinals Friday. She followed that by winning a three-set match in the semifinals, and was struggling to keep up by the second set on Sunday.
"It was a tough week for me with the match against Serena,'' Kerber said. "It was not easy.''
Not for Li, either.
With Serena watching from the stands, Li beat Venus Williams in a three-set semifinal Saturday night, sending her to the title match after a very trying week. The ninth-ranked Li ended up with the most challenging weekend of the tournament.
Her match on Thursday night was postponed by rain, forcing her to play two matches on Friday less than seven hours apart. She followed that with her win over Venus Williams, then that title-match breakthrough.
It was her second chance in a week to get a trophy. She reached the finals in Montreal on Monday and lost to Petra Kvitova 7-5, 2-6, 6-3.
Playing back-to-back finals for the first time in her career, Li nearly got run off the court.
Kerber broke her serve while pulling ahead 3-0 in the first set, when Li had trouble keeping the ball in the court. Li made 17 unforced errors while losing the set in 29 minutes.
"She was playing unbelievable in the first set,'' Li said. "I was trying to play fast, but I was feeling she had no mistakes. Every ball just came back to my side.''
The low point: Kerber broke her again to start the second set.
That's when Li settled down and made it a match, forcing long rallies that took a toll on Kerber. The German bent over after long points and leaned on her racket, showing the strain.
The turning point came with Kerber serving down 4-3 in the second set. Li wasted seven break points before finally winning the 24-point game.
Li pumped her left fist after she broke Kerber's serve to open the third set. Kerber slowed down as the set went on. She called for her coach after getting broken again to fall behind 3-0, then went to her chair, grabbed a towel and covered her face.
She sensed it was already over.
Despite the loss, Kerber came away upbeat over the way she's been playing lately. The 24-year-old German has won at Paris and Copenhagen, and finished as the runner-up in Eastbourne and Cincinnati.
Next week, she'll move up a spot to a career-best No. 6 in the world.
"One year ago, I was everywhere - 90 to 100 (in the rankings),'' she said. "And now I'm in the finals. So many things have changed in the last year. So I prefer this year.''