Serena Williams knew she had to win her Australian Open semifinal match in straight sets. She looked weary, and ran mostly on willpower through parts of the match. That wouldn't have been too difficult for Williams on an ordinary occasion, but there was nothing ordinary about the way opponent Li Na played today.
Li, whose tennis career has been interrupted repeatedly, first by retirement from the sport (which, for some reason, is ignored when retirements followed by returns are mentioned), and then by serious injuries which kept her out for months at a time. She tends to become anxious and make too many errors; sometimes I think she has this problem because her momentum gets interrupted so frequently.
Today, though, Li kept her anxiety in check much better than usual. She did make too many unforced errors, but she also hit some breathtaking winners.
In the first set, Williams went up an early break, and served for the set at 5-4, but was broken on the fourth break point. The set went to a tiebreak, and Williams went up a mini-break right away; then Li put the tiebreak then back on serve. The defending champion then went up another break. Li made a crucial error when she drew Williams to the net, and then--with an open court before her--chose to hit the ball with moderate power directly to Williams. This error put Li down another break, and--though she saved one set point--she lost the set when Williams took the tiebreak 7-4.
In the second set, Li had opportunities to break Williams, but could not take advantage of them. The 16th seed did not face a break point until she served at 4-5, and then the anxiety emerged, causing her to go off her game and face two match points. Li pulled herself together and saved both of them, but after the game went to deuce, she faced a third match point. She saved that one, too, then held for 5-all when she hit a cross-court forehand that forced Williams to hit wide.
Williams held easily, then Li, at 40-30, made another unforced error, followed by another one, which gave Williams her fourth match point. In the most thrilling moment of the match, Li put pressure on Williams, running her off the court in a tense rally, which Li won. She then held, forcing another tiebreak.
Williams again grabbed a quick mini-break and just kept going until she had a 6-1 lead. Then she let out a mighty yell as she hit an ace for match point.
Though Li must be disappointed to have lost such a close match in her first big semifinal, she has a lot to be proud of. Unlike some opponents, she took it to Williams, and the results were entertaining, and--at times--thrilling.
Williams is obviously battle-weary, no matter what she says to the press. Various parts of her legs are wrapped like something from Room 64 in the British Museum, and from time to time, she looks rather tense. To complicate matters, she is also still involved in the doubles draw. On the other hand, she's Serena Williams, and she has vast resources of psychological energy and belief. She has also won the Australian Open four times, and that alone creates a nice motivation for the defending champion to keep going.