ESPN Tennis: WTA Championships

Vacation delayed for Li Na

October, 24, 2013

Before Li Na had stepped onto the court to face Jelena Jankovic at the prestigious WTA Championships, she had only one thing on her mind: vacation.

Li said that because this is the final tournament of another long, draining year, her mind can’t help but drift to a place far away, one deprived of anything yellow, round and fuzzy. And let’s face it: Nothing says winning tennis quite like a daydreaming sojourn strolling along the Seine, spending time in one of the dazzling waterfront palazzos of Venice, Italy, or wherever Li decides to go. And for the record, she was mum on her plans.

Her priorities in order or not, Li’s mindset and, as it turns out, her game were right where they needed to be Thursday in Istanbul -- at least for the 2 hours, 11 minutes it took her to finally knock off Jankovic 6-3, 2-6, 6-3. Li improved to 2-0 in the round-robin stage of the year-enders with one more match to play before a potential appearance in the semifinals.

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Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty ImagesLi Na didn't play pristine tennis, but she is in good position to advance in the year-ending championships.
After three days of fairly routine matches, this encounter was the first three-setter of the WTA Championships. And by all accounts, it was a sloppy match marred by far more ebbs and flows than it did brilliant shot-making. Li more than doubled her unforced errors (45) to winners ratio (21), while Jankovic’s stats read 36 blunders to only 17 winners.

"So, of course, it was tight, yeah, but at least is better than last two years," Li said. "Jelena always tough match because she's very good, different player, so I think today I was running a lot, forward and backward on the court. It's very tough match."

Li was helped by some stellar net play. Since hiring coach Carlos Rodriguez a little more than a year ago, Li has made a commitment to moving forward. That’s become a seminal part of a more aggressive game plan to help Li match up with today’s power hitters. Against Jankovic, Li came to net 23 times and won 19 of those points, which was the clear difference-maker in this match.

In her on-court interview, Li said that “today wasn’t only about technique.” It was one that demanded focus, as taxing an ask as it is this time of year, at the right times.

Li’s final group contest will come against Victoria Azarenka, who looked anything like a world No. 2 in her last match, a loss to Jankovic, on Wednesday. Azarenka hasn’t tried to conceal her fatigue. Her unvarnished admission after that match that she is pretty much mentally and physically fried makes you wonder if she really wants to be in Istanbul at all. In other words, Li’s yearning to be elsewhere aside, she might be considered the favorite.

If Li can get by Azarenka, she’d become the 10th player to sweep the group stage since 2003. The past four players who have pulled off this feat (including Serena Williams twice) all won the WTA Championships. Williams did it last year and Petra Kvitova two years ago, when she played primo tennis en route to the title, a run that also led her to a Fed Cup championship a week later.

"I mean, if I lose the easy tomorrow, maybe [I have] no chance?," Li said. "I don't know. So still have to fight tomorrow, one more round for the group."

Jankovic played a feisty match. It was far more competitive than the last time she played Li, which was earlier this year at the US Open, where Li won 15 straight points en route to a 6-3, 6-0 57-minute drubbing.

“Today we had a great fight,” Jankovic said. “We both fought very well, and I managed to come back in the second set and played really well there, served much better.

“In the third set, it was just a couple of points. I got broken in that game. She lobbed me, and the ball went on the line. That was some few crucial points in that stage at the end of that third set and made a difference.”

Nothing ever seems to come routinely for the Serbian star, whether it’s her unique ability to play long matches when they shouldn’t be or her penchant for drama. And because of her history of histrionics, Jankovic can also be the victim of taking a bad rap when it’s not necessarily warranted. She has worked vigilantly to get back into the upper crust of the tennis world.

Jankovic, who finished 2008 as the top-ranked player in the world, fell to No. 22 a year ago, and the reality is that she wasn’t a player we recently paid particular attention to in terms of Grand Slam success.

But her ebullience and appreciation of being part of the year-end championships again is obvious. She’s committed to winning, even if she doesn’t.

"It's not surprise because [Jankovic] was former No. 1, so she has the level to be the top 10," Li said. "Maybe now she get more confident."

Despite the loss, the good news for Jankovic is that she has a pretty good chance of reaching the final four in Istanbul. On Friday, she’ll play her last round-robin match against Sara Errani, who is the weakest player in their group. If Jankovic wins, and Li beats Azarenka, Jankovic will advance. If Jankovic and Azarenka win, there will be a logjam atop the white group, which means the two players with the highest percentage of sets won will go through. Confused yet?

But it was Li who put herself into a prime position to reach Saturday’s semifinals. There is also a chance she can overtake Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska to move to No. 3 in the world if she reaches the final with a 3-0 round-robin record or wins the title. But that’s all gravy.

For now, Li only needs to worry about booking her flight to an exotic resort of her liking. That seems to be working quite nicely.
It wasn't a warning to her fellow players per se, but you don’t need to be Condoleezza Rice to interpret what Serena Williams was saying before the onset of the WTA Championships.

“Every tournament I play, I play to win,” Williams said. “Not that I didn't do that before, but it was just different, just at a different place in my life, and more than anything I enjoy playing tennis. I love being out there.

“Right now, I can't imagine my life without a tennis racket in my hand and playing, you know, the next event. I think maybe that makes a difference.”

Serena, who swiped away Agnieszka Radwanska 6-2, 6-4 to improve to 2-0 in the round-robin stage of the year-enders, is more driven than ever and only wants to further reform her game.

So this is probably a good time to retract the opening line of this story. Yes, it was a warning -- a very stern one, in fact.

Williams, who wasn't as crisp Wednesday as she was in her opener, is nonetheless having a career year at the age of 32, which for most players is a few years past the demarcation line of playing world-class tennis. How many other competitors have begun fazing themselves out of the game, if not completely into retirement, by their mid-20s?

Granted, the game has become more physical in recent years. Bigger, harder hitters have thrived on all surfaces. Clay specialists and players with only sneaky, deft games aren't thriving anymore. The day of teenage Slam winners is long gone. The last one: Maria Sharapova, who was 17 when she won Wimbledon in 2004.

And when you think about it, how many truly great, young players are there on tour right now? Sloane Stephens comes to mind; she’s strung together some nice runs in the majors the past couple of years, and she’s the youngest player in the top 20. But is she a top-five player, someone who’s going to be a stable face on the final weekend of Slams?

There’s Laura Robson, who is rife with talent and capable of pulling off upsets, which she showed last year at the US Open with wins over Kim Clijsters and Li Na. But like so many other fledgling stars, Robson hasn't strung together consistent results. And quite frankly, it’s too early to figure out whether the likes of Madison Keys, Eugenie Bouchard and Monica Puig, among a few others, will have robust futures.

But all that said, it seems to defy some kind of logic that Williams, who is 17 years into her vocation, will end 2013 with a career-best 11 titles if she wins in Istanbul. Not only is she playing the best tennis of her life, but she has the clarity of mind to keep this stunning run going.

Since losing to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round of Wimbledon, Williams has played five tournaments (excluding the year-enders), and has won four. Her only loss came against Victoria Azarenka in a third-set tiebreaker of the Western & Southern Open final, a tournament right before the US Open, which, yes, Williams won.

After she defended her New York crown, wouldn't you figure she would lose some sort of motivation? Not according to Williams. She was reflective and honest when asked to assess her success this year.

“When I was 20 or 18, I never thought I'd be playing at this stage, and I have had a lot of time to think about it,” Williams said right before the WTA Championships began. “The sport has just been growing so great. It's just been a great opportunity for me to continue to play, so I never thought I would have one of my best years this year, but I always just try to keep doing better.”

Jelena Jankovic recently said that what Williams is doing right now is “inspiring.” Angelique Kerber admitted she had “no chance” against Serena in the opening match in Istanbul.

Look, we’re not breaking any new ground by declaring Serena the empress of today's game. Her collective package -- athleticism, strength and mind -- separates her by a wide margin, as the rankings suggest. (Williams has nearly 5,000 points more than the second-ranked Azarenka.) We’re merely pointing out how easily we can forget that Williams shouldn't be doing what she is.

Except that she is.
After 51 minutes, Victoria Azarenka labored to her changeover chair looking a little dazed and most certainly confused.

Seven games into the first set, Azarenka’s opponent, much more diminutive underdog Sara Errani, had taken a commanding two-break lead at 5-2. The opening match of the 2013 WTA Championships looked like a shocker was brewing. According to, Errani was listed as 150-1 favorite to win the tournament, far and away the worst odds of anyone in the eight-player field.

Azarenka, the No. 2-ranked player, was howling at herself for spraying balls she typically returns with conviction and ease. It hasn’t exactly been a seamless stretch for Azarenka, who was mired in a three-match losing streak since she reached the final of the US Open.

But tennis, much like life itself, has a way of finding its equilibrium. Azarenka began playing a little less mechanically and eventually took the opening set in a tiebreaker. The second set, of course, went as predicted. Azarenka cleaned up her game and won the match 7-6 (4), 6-2.

There is little question this was an ugly match for Azarenka, but, because of the nature of the round-robin format, losing a single set can be extremely damaging in deciding group tiebreakers. So Azarenka was, by all accounts, fortunate to walk away from this match in straight sets.

"Well, I was a little rusty at the beginning," Azarenka said. "I think it's a little bit expected after a break, and, you know, playing right away against a top player always makes it a little bit difficult because you don't have that room, adaptation. So I had to make that adaptation kind of during the match."

But, adding injury to insult, Errani also appeared to hurt her right calf or Achilles against Azarenka. The Italian was ailing, unable to move with the usual fleeting speed and grace that have been the hallmarks of her success.

Errani has her obvious handicaps, most of them a result of her 5-foot-4 stature. Her height genes aside, though, Errani plays with a tremendous amount of heart, as she showed early in the match.

But she still has to contend with the power, spin and depth of her bigger opponents on a regular basis. Her loss to Azarenka dropped her record to 0-20 lifetime against players ranked in the top three.

Errani clearly was affected by her right leg injury. And considering she really can’t contend with any of her seven cohorts in Istanbul without 100 percent health, there were some immediate questions as to whether she’ll drop out of the tournament. If so, Caroline Wozniacki, who is the first alternate, would take Errani’s place and inherit her 0-1 group record.

"Yeah, in the tiebreaker first set I felt, on the serve, a pain on my calf," Errani said. "So from there I was worried because I was feeling pain. Then I call the physio, and she make a bit of treatment.

"Then four games on, I don't know when it was, when I make the smash, I felt also cramp after, so I don't know. I am just doing treatment with the physio and see how it goes. I hope good."

Errani did imply she will give it a go against Li Na, whom she plays Wednesday.

Despite her recent travails, the caliber of work Azarenka put forth in this match was still unexpected. But she did eventually clean up her game and finished with nearly twice as many winners as unforced errors (51-27).

As the No. 2 seed, big things are expected of Azarenka. She needed this win -- you’d better believe that. Not only to regain some confidence but also because falling early in these round-robin events leaves little more room for failure.

Azarenka won’t be satisfied with the aesthetics surrounding her win Tuesday, but the bottom line is that it was a win.