It has been a long and well-documented road to the top of women’s professional tennis for Li Na, the Chinese superstar who is now beginning to put pressure on World No. 1 Serena Williams for that coveted top ranking. How fitting then that current World No. 2 will be facing Serena Williams in Saturday’s mouthwatering clash between the top two seeds for the 2014 Sony Open Tennis title.
Li will be hoping to make history as the first ever Chinese player to win the Sony Open Tennis, while Williams is vying to become the greatest champion in the history of the tournament if she collects her record seventh title – she is currently tied with Andre Agassi as the player with the most singles tournament wins, 6.
“You know, everyone would be confident if they (got) to the final, because at least they win a couple of matches,” said Li, who heads into the match with a WTA-best 21 victories this year, including a victory over Dominika Cibulkova on Stadium Court in a Thursday night semifinal.
“So, I think for sure it’s a tough match, so we have to see who is playing better on the court,” Li added.
As well as her six titles, Williams has reached 9 Key Biscayne finals, including Saturday. When asked who she would like to face before the other semifinal was played, Serena said she looked forward to playing the World No. 2. “I would love to play Li Na. I haven’t played her in a while.”
“She brings some good game. She comes to the net, and I’m enjoying that right now,” Serena said of her opponent. The 17-time Grand Slam winner is rolling at the Sony Open, having lost only one set (third round). She’s only lost 15 games in her last three matches, including her semifinal win over last year's finalist Maria Sharapova.
Still, Serena said there is plenty of room for improvement, especially considering how she started the tournament. “I didn’t think I would be sitting here the way I was playing in the beginning of the week, so I’m excited to still be in the tournament. If you just keep fighting to live another day, you can always improve.”
Li knows it will be a battle to overthrow the defending champion but she is playing some of the best tennis of her career, including capturing her first Australian Open title in January. “It’s a good challenge, I think,” said Li, who already made and won her first semifinal in Key Biscayne this year. “This time here really (I) can see how was I improve for this three, four months. (It’s a) very good challenge for me. I really happy I can play her again.”
Li, who reached her career-high No. 2 ranking in mid-February, the highest ever for an Asian player, credits most of her recent success to work done with Coach Carlos Rodriguez. “I think it has a lot to do with her coach the last couple of years. He changed her serve, made her more aggressive,” said Cheng Wen, a writer for SinaWeibo, a Chinese micro blogging website, who has covered Li for 5 years.
“After he changed her serve, I have seen a different player playing more aggressive from the baseline, coming to the net a lot more and having fun.” Wen also credited Li’s work ethic and positive nature for her career resurgence. “She’s a very hard-working player, you know. She has continued to practice hard and maintained the drive to get better,” said Wen. He believes Li has to be near perfect to score one of the most important victories of her career, but doesn’t rule anything out.
“I think if you’re on the court everyone has a chance,” said Wen. “Against Serena maybe it’s a little bit of a chance, but I think Li has had a lot of close matches with Serena. She can be aggressive but be smart about when to take a chance. Beating Serena would be a big win – I think it would really boost her confidence.”