By Jane Voigt
“It wasn’t the prettiest match in the world,” Tracy Austin stated flatly, in her normal match calling voice. It was appropriate in this case, though. Li Na had defeated Dominika Cibulkova in the first quarterfinal of the day. But the match was anything but exceptional.
Fraught with unforced errors, missed opportunities on break chances, and double faults, the two women could not come to terms with their own deficits. One would hit a few good points, then the other would return the compliment. But at no point throughout the match did they both play well or show signs of dominance, a bottom-line necessity for a good match.
Yesterday, Li blew 11 match points against Alexandria Wozniak of Canada. Today in the early part of set two, Li and Cibulkova played an 11-minute game. The coincidence annoyed more than pleased. Li won the very next game at love.
Nonetheless, Li advanced to her second semifinal since 2007 at the BNP Paribas Open 63 46 63. The match took 2 hours and 35 minutes, and Li improved her record against Cibulkova to 6-0.
“I am happy about how I hit the ball,” Li told Tennis Channel. She said she has learned to “never give up,” which differs from her demeanor of years back … prior to hiring Carlos Rodriguez as her coach. In that stage of her career, any blip in a match could touch off a tirade directed at her husband or a string of worthless points, which then stacked into games.
Li should be happy. She has a great chance to advance to the final and win the title. And a large percentage of the matches this week have been wiggy affairs. Constant breaks of serves. Errors after errors. Players bubbling over with frustration at times, smashing racquets, arguing with chair umpires, calling supervisors to court, lambasting opponents. Ernests Gulbis told Roberto Bautista Agut yesterday that he ‘complained like a woman.’ That wasn’t too long after the Latvian had obliterated another racquet.
To win, all a player must do is be better than the opponent. Li fit the ticket today. However she had 8 double faults and one ace. Yet she pushed Cibulkova to the brink, eliciting 51 unforced errors and suffocating her second serve to 30%.
So why did the match carry on? Why did Li suffer through three sets. Logic would say she should have won in two.
But, tennis is not logical.
We cannot know the court conditions, although the temperature was in the low 80s. We cannot know what each woman thought between points, although they probably have a pretty pat routine down. To her credit, Cibulkova fought hard when down. Every 100 M.P.H. first serve was followed by deep penetrating ground strokes that moved Li, taking away balance and confidence.
Li Na told Tennis Channel that she thinks she can be the number-one player in the world. If they had asked her that question a few years back, the answer would have been a resounding ‘no.’ Part of her new-found belief comes from winning. Part comes from Rodriguez’s push to improve, and her faith in his coaching. They dance well together.
Thing is, Li is 5800 points behind Serena Williams in the WTA rankings.
The No. 1 seed will play either Flavia Pennetta or Sloane Stephens in the semifinal. Pennetta is one day older than Li. Both are 32. Each woman is five-seven. Pennetta’s well-rounded game will force Li to perform on the run and maintain consistency.
Li and Stephens have never met on court. Li would be faced with the next generation’s hopes … Stephens is 20. Li does not like to be reminded of her age, or how much older she is than the field. Maybe that will spark her engines enough to make a difference. Otherwise, she will have to demonstrate superior tennis skills, which seem to have gotten her this far.