Serena Williams and Li Na Survive to Meet in Quarterfinals of Sony Open Tennis

Li Na in action at the Sony OpenĀ (Christopher Levy for Tennis Grandstand)

By Jane Voigt

MIAMI, FL (March 25, 2013 )Li Na was up 5-1 in the first set against Spanish teen and wildcard, Gabine Muguruza, before she started to think. To think about what it would be like to win the match — she was in a good spot, or so she thought.

“I was feeling pretty good. (I) should continued,” Li said. “Maybe I think too much of other things, like after court, blah blah.”

Before Li knew it, they were playing a first set tiebreak — the riskiest crossroads for a player.

Li initially cruised to go up 6-1, and, yet again, the lead slipped out of her hands like a slippery rope on a rain-soaked sailboat.

“I told myself don’t do the same thing (as earlier in the set),” she said, laughing. “But same thing come back. Okay, 6-6 in tiebreak I have to calm down.”

She recalled advice from her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, that even if she lost the set there were two more. Either player had to win two sets. That notion lifted her confidence enough to finally close the first set, 7-6(6).

Similarly, Serena Williams was in a funk during her post-match press conference after she defeated Dominika Cibulkova is three rollercoaster sets. She said she was stressed, but didn’t reference the source. Her head drooped more than a hound dog’s, as she trudged from point to point.

Across the net was a furiously fit and confident Cibulkova. What she doesn’t have in size, she makes up in tracking down balls. She had Williams on the run and headed in the opposite direction from a tournament record-breaking sixth Miami title.

“Mentally, I was just fried,” she said, her eyes cast downward. “I was just thinking about everything but tennis.”

The stress, come to find out, was not about anything in particular. She did, though, have a conversation with her alter ego. The one that criticizes and yanks her around mentally.

“Yeah, I’m talking to myself inside and she’s talking back and giving me lip,” Serena admitted. “I give her a little attitude, and then I tell her she sucks and she tells me to shut up.”

The mental holiday left both Williams and Li, who were on track to meet in the quarterfinals, in uncomfortable positions. The difference between the two comebacks — because they both did pull rabbits out of their hats and won their matches — was in their tennis.

Li Na had to concentrate on her game and block out the extraneous mumblings. Her rest and recovery from a left ankle injury after the Australian Open plus her continued fitness regime were key to her victory today.

After Melbourne, Li spent a couple of weeks in China before heading to Germany for three weeks. There she saw a doctor with whom she has seen since 2007. A ligament had been torn, and a nearby bone was in question. Her doctor was concerned about the fascia muscle, which was also impinged.

“Then I went back to China to train with Carlos,” she began. “He didn’t know how tough he could push. So, at first, we hit softly. We talked about our schedule and plan. I had to tell him how I was feeling from yesterday. We always talk before training.”

Li Na’s improvement on court can be partially attributed to her conversations with Carlos. Nothing more.

“I really (am) happy I can work with him,” she continued. “He never gives me pressure. Chinese (are) a little bit different than Western, for me. I didn’t speak out. I hold for myself. The team didn’t know what I was thinking for the match. Now I feel comfortable or happy, and I can speak out.”

In the second set, Li found herself again in a similar spot; she was up 5-2 on Muguruza’s serve. Luckily for Li, Muguruza’s mind lapsed with a double fault.

“I was thinking (about) what I am going to serve,” Garbine said, laughing. “(Li) is one of the best. I think I do really good points and play a good match.”

Although on her way to Charleston, S.C., for the Family Circle Cup, Muguruza remained upbeat especially about the improvement in her return of serve, which pressured Li as she escaped mentally. “I’m really happy. I had good rhythm against those girls. (I have) lots of confidence for these types of matches.”

Li won the match 7-6(6), 6-2.

Serena, though, had to quash her rabid racing mind and kick-start her feet. Like so many other times in her stellar career, though, the 15-time major winner came to the net, took balls early, and mixed up her game enough to disrupt Cibulkova’s baseline rhythm.

Serena’s aggression paid off.

“I feel like coming to the net helped me to just play a little better and play more aggressive and just play my game,” she began. “I was not feeling my game today, you know, but for me it’s getting through those matches when you don’t feel great and then you’re still able to come through them and survive and play for another round.”

Scoreline for Serena’s mental battle and win … 2-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Serena Williams and Li Na each survived their scares today. Their broad experiences, acuity as world-class athletes and tennis players, plus that intangible element which spurs champions to will their way through the finish line, clicked even though moments of doubt crept in view to challenge them both.