Li took on Petra Kvitova in the first match on Saturday, and what was billed as a clash between two of the biggest hitters on tour soon turned into a rather routine affair. Although neither woman had a particularly good serving day – Kvitova hit six double faults and Li five – the Chinese star compensated with a brilliant performance on the return. She broke the tricky Kvitova serve six times, pressuring the Czech throughout the match with sharp reflexes and flatly hit groundstrokes. Kvitova may have been the more in-form player heading into Istanbul, but the new world number three took charge and won 6-4, 6-2 in one hour, 36 minutes.
Even more impressive was Li’s mental strength. We have seen her collapse on big occasions this year, such as the Wimbledon quarter-finals and the US Open semis, but against Kvitova she showed few signs of nerves, even in the closing stages. Coming a day after her composed performance against an injured Azarenka, it looks as though Li has picked the perfect time to become a more focussed, mentally sound player.
But if the Li-Kvitova showdown was all about keeping it together, the Serena-Jankovic semi-final was anything but. In one of the most puzzling, unpredictable and emotional matches of the year, the world number one just about held on to triumph 6-4, 2-6, 6-4.
Midway through the first set, Serena appeared to hurt her back. She began serving at (for her) pedestrian paces, and didn’t seem able to move as fluidly as usual. However, she was able to unleash when the ball sat up high, and a flustered Jankovic obliged by feeding her plenty of looping shots.
Yet in the second set, Serena grimaced between points and even looked close to tears. Her injury – there was no knowing exactly what was wrong because she never called for the trainer – seemed to get worse, and Jankovic finally capitalised. With her opponent under the weather and apparently fighting internal demons, the Serb had a great opportunity to secure a memorable win.
In the decider, the match grew even more confounding. Serena broke early and, her serve and movement improving, began to resemble the player who has been so dominant this year. But on the brink of victory with a double break lead, she let the momentum slip. The final moments of the match were a frazzling experience for fans and entourages alike in the Sinan Erdem Dome: Serena looking desperately upset yet producing stunning winners, Jankovic appearing on the cusp of a comeback but softballing once too often. The post-match handshake between two of the WTA’s most formidable characters was brief.
After the match, Serena said she wasn’t injured but had just “hit the wall” after her busiest ever season. Will that affect her against Li on Sunday? If she struggles with serve and movement again, the fourth seed is likely to make her pay more than Jankovic did. Li is one of the world’s best from the back of the court, and doesn’t hesitate to punish a short ball. She may trail Serena 1-9 in their head-to-head, but apart from the thrashing in Flushing Meadows last month, she has always played her close.
But is it really likely than Serena, exhausted as she is, will fail to bring it in the Istanbul showpiece? Throughout this year, she has never once seemed indifferent to winning, and has always managed to bring extra intensity when a trophy is in sight. Winning against the odds is what she does, and at the WTA Championships she has a chance to win big.
Prediction: Serena may have hit the wall on Saturday, but she’ll hit through it on Sunday. She’ll summon her legendary will to win for one last match in 2013 and, with no sign of the poor body language and suspect temperament that characterised her play against Jankovic, will take out Li in two close sets.