Li Na (Player Profile) steps into the spotlight again on Wednesday when she plays her third round match against Sabine Lisicki (Player Profile) at the China Open. Li Na vs Lisicki Head to Head stands at 1-2.
The Chinese number one is a megastar in her home country, and the pressure to deliver on the biggest Asian stage is immense. To date, there have been signs that it might be too much for Li, who isn’t renowned for her mental strength: in her eight appearances in Beijing, she had made the semi-finals just twice.
But she has begun her 2013 campaign in blistering form. In the first round, she won the first ten games against Daniela Hantuchova before eventually coming through 6-0, 6-4, and she was simply untouchable in her second round match on Tuesday. Facing the dangerous Bojana Jovanovski, who has scooped two titles in the last three weeks, Li won 90% of her first serve points, broke six times and completed a 6-0, 6-1 beatdown in a mere 53 minutes. It was one of her most dominant performances of the season, and the local fans loved every second.
Li will have to summon more of that relentless, aggressive tennis if she is to make the quarter-finals in Beijing. In the first match of the evening session, she’ll play Wimbledon runner-up Sabine Lisicki.
The German has done little of note since her famously joyous breakthrough at the All England Club, and the wait for next year’s grass court season was starting to feel awfully long. Yet she dispatched Chanelle Sheepers in straight sets on Sunday, and in the second round surprised everyone with a near-flawless display against Venus Williams. Although Venus struggled throughout – the serve that guided her to the Tokyo semi-finals last week seemingly AWOL – Lisicki was close to peak form. She won an incredible 96% of first serve points and broke her opponent four times. Venus kept battling like the champion she is, but the consistent, courageous Lisicki gave her absolutely nothing, and walked away a 6-1, 6-2 winner in less than an hour.
If Lisicki and Li can bring their ‘A’ games to the National Tennis Stadium on Wednesday, we could be in for a big-hitting treat. Their three previous encounters have been close, Lisicki winning on clay and grass in 2011 and Li triumphing on the hard courts of Miami last year. Without a doubt, the pressure is all on the Chinese: she is ranked higher and playing in front of her demanding home fans. That said, Lisicki hasn’t faced an in-form elite player since she beat Serena and Radwanska in SW19.
There will be plenty of unforced errors to accompany the jaw-dropping winners in this one. Both women have power and talent to spare, but both have been known to freeze on the big stage (witness Lisicki in the Wimbledon final and Li in the US Open semis.) Lisicki has a harder, faster serve than Li and is just as strong off the ground, but her groundstrokes can veer way off course when she’s nervous. Li has been working hard with coach Carlos Rodriguez to add new facets to her game, but she still looks uncomfortable at the net.
A two-and-a-half-hour marathon could be on the cards here, but going by recent form it seems more likely that Li will come through in two high-quality sets.