ISTANBUL — Sunday’s final of the WTA Championships will feature the two oldest players in the field, as Serena Williams battled through fatigue to defeat Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 to face Li Na, who will become the highest-ranked Asian player in tennis history at No. 3 after defeating Petra Kvitova 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals.
When Li partnered with coach Carlos Rodriguez last fall, their goal was either to win another Slam or get Li to that third ranking in the world. Thanks to an undefeated record through group play this week and her win over Kvitova, Li will leapfrog Maria Sharapova on Monday to finish the season at a career-high No. 3, a credit to her year-long consistency in which she’s made the quarterfinals or better at every non-clay tournament this season.
Now comes the task of beating Serena, who confessed after her three-set win over Jankovic that she’s hit a wall and her gas tank is empty. While her tournament has been fairly straight-forward — she was the only player going into the semifinals who had not played a three-set match — she came into the tournament having played more matches this season than ever. Saturday night’s win moved her year-long tally to 77-4. Prior to this year, she had never played more than 62 matches in any season.
Against Jankovic, she spent the first set spinning serves into the box and struggling to run down balls sent wide. At times, she appeared to be in tears as she fought her body to try and get going.
“I was just physically really tired,” she said. “My legs wouldn’t move. My arm wouldn’t go fast. I think when you are doing something so much for so long throughout the year, maybe it can take its toll.”
Earlier this week, Serena said she was “hanging by a thread,” but said she finally felt it last night. “Ever since then, I have just had little to no energy,” she said. “Even in practice today, I was really struggling, and in the match, I was just really struggling to have energy just to play.”
After a week of dismantling opponents with ease, Williams is still the favorite going into Sunday’s final, but she’ll have less than 24 hours to recover.
“Right now I’m on E (empty),” she said, laughing. “We’ll see. I’m going to obviously try to put some gas in the tank tonight, go to the gas station and fill up and try. We’ll see what I can do. Like I said, I’m really proud that I was even able to stay out there today. And, you know, tomorrow is the final, so obviously everyone gets pumped up. I’m hoping I’ll get some adrenaline going tomorrow.”
While Williams will be working on her body, Li’s biggest problem going into Sunday is her mind. She’s beaten Serena just once in her career, a 0-6, 6-1, 6-4 win on hard court in Stuttgart all the way back in 2008. She’s lost eight straight matches since and won just one set. The two faced off in the U.S. Open semifinal in September, and Serena romped to a 6-0, 6-3 win. Li says she lost that match before she even walked on court. The belief simply wasn’t there.
“I don’t think another player gives me the same feeling,” she said. ”Maybe now I have to try to focus on what I should do on the court, not focus what she does on the court. So I have to try to play my game, not follow her.”
“Tactically, she knows how to do it,” Rodriguez told a small pool of reporters. “The problem is that she’s unable sometimes to do it.”
Rodriguez has done wonders for Li’s concentration and confidence during their partnership, which is as much about psychology as it is tactics.
“It is very difficult [for her] to believe that she can do it,” he said, referring to Li’s tendency to be too hard on herself and get negative. “This is the most difficult thing for her, is to make the psychological decision that, ‘I have a chance. At least I have a chance.’ That’s hard for her. I’m convinced that it’s most of the time about herself [rather] than about Serena. So long as she is not confident about herself and her qualities, then it’s going to be hard. I focus more on that than what’s across the net.”
Li conceded that no other player on the WTA intimidates her as much as Serena. That frustration prevents her from playing her best. “Actually, when I was walking to the court, I was still feeling confident, but after one or two games, I couldn’t find the rhythm doing the match against [her] in the US Open.”
It’s a tough prospect to hand Serena just her fifth loss of the season, but Rodriguez looks forward to seeing what his charge can do now that there’s very little pressure to win. ”As much as she’s going to play with her as much as she’s going to learn,” he said. “Serena pushes you to give your best and not too many players can do that.”
Aside from the mental component, Rodriguez says the key will be Li’s ability to hold serve. ”As long as she keeps her serve — and with Serena it’s not easy at all — you can go to the tiebreak and then you never know,” he said. “Now I think that Serena is the only player in the tour today able to do five kinds of different first serves in one game, which is very unusual. You don’t find a player like that.”
Rodriguez, who said he is happy with Li’s progress “but never satisfied”, says he just wants to see her believe in herself on Sunday. “That is the only wish that I have,” he said, “that she can express herself. The score, we will see after. But first is battle.”