Here’s a look at the women’s semifinals on Day 12 of the U.S. Open. CBS will televise both matches. For the complete order of play, click here.
Serena Williams vs. Li Na (Not Before 3:45 p.m., Arthur Ashe Stadium): Is there ever really “nothing to lose” for Li? At 31, she’s the reluctant face of a nation, peppered with questions about heroism and nationalism that few other top players ever have to deal with. She’s the first Chinese player to make the U.S. Open semifinals. She handles the questions as best she can, with humor and, at times, biting honesty. “You know, I always try to be the first one,” she said, laughing, after winning her quarterfinal.
She will remind you that she’s just a woman standing on a tennis court, trying to win a match. She says she’s not concerned with the criticism that picks up at home when she loses. After all, China doesn’t really understand tennis yet. It doesn’t get that you can’t actually win every match you play, every tournament you enter, and win seven matches over the course of two weeks against the best competition in the world.
So, no, I don’t think Li can take the court these days and have nothing to lose. But to the extent she might be able to genuinely convince herself it’s true, it would be against Williams. This is the headline match of the day between two thirty-something Grand Slam champions, with both looking to advance to their second major final this year. Top-ranked Williams owns the head-to-head (as she owns most head-to-heads) 8-1, but every one of the nine matches has either gone three sets, had at least one tiebreak set or included at least one 7-5 set.
These are matches decided by just a few points and it’s no surprise that Williams has played those points better in the past. She’s the mentally tougher of the two , though Li has made no secret that with the help of coach Carlos Rodriguez, she’s addressed some of her tendencies to get negative on court.
Serena has spent the least amount of time on court of the semifinalists. But she’s also had no off-days, as she’s still in the doubles tournament with her sister Venus (in fact, they’ll play their semifinal match after this one). Li has dropped just one set, against Ekaterina Makarova in the quarterfinals, and surprisingly leads the women with 29 aces in five matches (the big-serving Serena has hit 21). The two played just three weeks ago at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where Serena prevailed 7-5, 7-5 in the semifinals. In that match, Li attacked the net, a tactic she and Rodriguez have been working on in practice. It looked like a crazy decision every time she did it, as she gave Serena a target to pass. But, to her credit, Li stuck with it and seems to have bought into the idea that it’s the next development in her game.
Li’s breakout year in 2008 included her only victory over Serena, in Stuttgart, Germany. Since then, Serena’s been ready for her game, which can resemble that of Kim Clijsters, with her fluid backhand, big forehand and attackable serve. Under Rodriguez, Li has shored up that serve, though she can still throw in double faults when she gets nervous, and much like Serena, she’s moving as well as she has in her entire career.
If both women play well, the turning point will be their serves. Serena is simply more reliable on that shot, while Li’s can either falter completely or just sit up for Serena to take a swing.
Here are highlights from their quarterfinal match in Miami earlier this year. Serena won 6-3, 7-6 (5).
Prediction: Serena in three sets.
Victoria Azarenka vs Flavia Pennetta (Not Before 1:45 p.m., Arthur Ashe Stadium): Pennetta is the surprise semifinalist and part of the 31-and-over club. Before Francesca Schiavone’s French Open victory or the emergence of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci near the top of the rankings, Pennetta was the flag bearer of Italian women’s tennis. She was the first Italian woman to break into the top 10, in 2009, and made three U.S. Open quarterfinals before a right wrist injury ended her 2012 season. Just four months ago, she was ranked outside the top 150. Now she’s into her first Slam semifinal, without dropping a set, and she’s beaten four seeds to get here, No. 4 Errani, No. 10 Vinci, No. 21 Simona Halep and No. 27 Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Across from her is last year’s finalist, Azarenka, who’s been winning ugly throughout the tournament. The No. 2 has yet to play her best tennis in New York — she’s spent the most time on court of all four women, at 8 hours and 19 minutes — and she was pushed to three sets by Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round and Alize Cornet in the third round. But there’s confidence to be gained from a run like this. The fact is Azarenka is winning with her C-plus game and she’s into the semifinals of a Slam. That’s not bad at all.
Pennetta and Azarenka have split their two meetings, with Azarenka surprisingly winning on clay in 2010 and Pennetta on hard court in 2011. Azarenka has improved tremendously since their last match.
Here are highlights from their last match, which Pennetta won 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-4 in Dubai.
Needless to say, Azarenka is a huge step up in quality in terms of the players Pennetta has beaten to get here. Azarenka’s consistency off the ground has saved her this week, as has her drop shot, which was used to perfection against Ivanovic. I’d be very surprised if Azarenka comes out flat against Pennetta. When you’re this close to the final, the champions step up.
Prediction: Azarenka in straight sets.