ISTANBUL — Li Na beat an injured Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 6-1 on Friday to reach the semifinals of the WTA Championships for the first time.
Li’s victory, her third without a loss in round-robin play, means that Jelena Jankovic will move into Saturday’s semifinals as the second qualifier from the White Group. Li will face Petra Kvitova, who earned her spot with a 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-3 win over Angelique Kerber. Jankovic will meet Serena Williams, who didn’t lose a set in three round-robin matches.
Most of the discussion during and after Li’s win centered on Azarenka’s decision to play through a back injury that left her in tears and unable to serve or run for balls. Serving at 2-3, 0-30, she let out a scream upon landing after a serve. Azarenka said she felt her back lock up.
“I don’t know what really happened,” she said. “Just bad movement and really just everything moved, big spasm. No flexibility.”
Despite visits from the trainer, Azarenka’s condition never improved. She couldn’t change direction, was forced to serve flat-footed with just her arm and struggled to keep balls in play. Yelps of pain accompanied a few awkward movements and she struggled even when hunched over to receive serve. But she says she never thought of retiring from the match.
“Everybody saw that I was in a lot of pain,” Azarenka said. “At the end of the day, it’s my decision what I’m going to do. I just felt that I want to try my best and go from there. I didn’t feel like [the injury was causing] structural damage. It’s just been really locked.”
While Azarenka struggled to finish the match, Li’s improved focus never seemed to wane. A year ago, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Li spray errors and give away free points in a situation like this. On Friday, however, she never gave Azarenka a reason to believe she had a chance.
“Today the match is not about tennis, about fitness,” Li said. “Only about [the mental]. I thought maybe after the first set she will give up or retire, but she still tried to continue to play. I have to focus because you never know what will happen on the court.”
With all the drama happening around her, Li hit 28 winners to just eight unforced errors and put 85 percent of her returns in play.
“Maybe this is why this year I improved,” Li said. “When the first time she [asked for] the physio, I was like, OK, focus. Just [be] ready to [run for] every shot.”
During the match, as Azarenka’s decision to play on was seemingly questioned en masse, her publicity manager tweeted,”If she retires she is critiqued and if she stays playing injured she is too. What’s the best thing according to you? I admire her effort!” Sam Sumyk, Azarenka’s coach, reiterated that no-win message when speaking to a French reporter after the match.
It’s been an injury-filled year for Azarenka, who will finish ranked No. 2 after winning her second Australian Open and two other titles. But what became clear from this incident is how much Azarenka’s history of withdrawals and retirements from matches — she’s reportedly retired or withdrawn from 27 matches in her career — weighs on her mind, whether she’ll admit it or not. When she was asked initially why she carried on in the match, Azarenka cited her respect for her opponent, the fans and the potential discussion of her fragile history.
“Because there is no‑win situation here retiring, and being all discussed [about retirements],” she said, “and the other thing is just try to do the best.”
But when asked about whether the potential criticism about retiring weighed on her mind during the match, she said she didn’t think about it.
“There could be; there could not be,” she said. “I don’t know. It’s not like [the discussion] never happened before.”