Serena Williams (Profile) will face her biggest test so far at the Western and Southern Open when she takes on Li Na (Profile) in tonight’s semi-final. Serena leads the Head to Head against Na Li with 7-2.
After dominating the field to win last week’s Rogers Cup in Toronto, the world number one looked much more vulnerable at the start of her Cincinnati campaign. She played one of her worst sets in years before recovering to beat Eugenie Bouchard in the second round, reminding us of the erratic Serena of old. But she gradually improved in the next two rounds, taking care of both Mona Barthel and Simona Halep in straight sets.
Serena lost just six points to Halep in a one-sided first set on Friday, and fended off a much steelier challenge from the Romanian in the second to come through 6-0, 6-4 in just over an hour. Afterwards, the notoriously hard-to-please top seed said she still wasn’t satisfied with her play this week.
“I definitely haven’t felt that good all week; so I’m surprised to be still in the tournament to be honest. But in the end it’s not really about how you play, it’s about being able to win, whether you play well or not.”
Serena will definitely have to play well to make the final in Cincinnati, one of the few big tournaments she hasn’t won. In the first night match on Center Court, she’ll take on a well-rested fifth seed Li Na, who got a walkover into the last four when Agnieszka Radwanska pulled out before their quarter-final.
Li has had a curious season so far, a mixture of superb runs and head-scratching losses. She defeated Radwanska and Maria Sharapova to make the final of the Australian Open back in January, but has also fallen to the likes of Madison Keys and Elena Vesnina. In Toronto, she posted gutsy wins against Ana Ivanovic and Dominika Cibulkova before playing a howler of a match against Sorana Cristea. She appears to be moving in the right direction again in Cincinnati, following up a comeback win over Lauren Davis with an impressive straight sets dismissal of Angelique Kerber. But can she elevate her game another few notches to beat Serena?
Li’s only victory against Williams came on clay in Stuttgart in 2008. Although their six matches since then have been competitive and featured plenty of tie-breaks, Serena has always been stronger in the crucial moments. The 16-time Grand Slam champion does everything just a little bit better than Li: her serve is a major weapon, she defends brilliantly, and she can mix powerful groundstrokes with well-timed forays to the net. Li is adept at turning defence into attack and hits hard and flat from the back of the court, but she doesn’t have the American’s coolness under pressure. Serena will punish any lapses in concentration, and run down every ball in a bid to break her opponent’s resistance.
With Li at her peak and Serena just below hers, this could be a tight, entertaining match with breathtaking rallies and superb shotmaking. However, Li’s level tends to fluctuate during matches, especially against the top players – her losses to Azarenka in Melbourne and Radwanska at Wimbledon are prime examples. We can expect her to give Serena a thorough workout in Cincinnati, but ultimately she’ll succumb in two close sets.