Courage, will, determination—the common term might be “guts.” Whatever word one chooses, this was the quality which won Serena Williams the eleventh tournament of the biggest year of her tennis career, the WTA Championships at Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday.
It was the number-one ranked Williams’ fourth WTA Championship; it was also likely her hardest.
“I don’t know how I got through that one,” Williams said after beating Li Na of China in three sets according to WTATennis.com. “I’ve just had a really long year, and I’m just really excited, honestly. I really didn’t expect to get through this match today.
“I can’t believe I won. I was so tired. Honestly, did I really win? Because she played so well.”
Serena Williams had had an amazing year, winning ten tournaments, but because she won so many tournaments, she had to play a lot of matches, and that took a toll mentally and physically.
Williams breezed through her early matches at Istanbul but the night before her semi-final match against Jelena Jankovic she “just hit a wall,” as she described it. Her 32-year-old body, after nearly eighty matches this season, simply stopped, while her motivation leaked away. “I was so tired just even standing. I think I’ve just played a lot of tennis this year,” she told WTATennis.com.
Williams looked terrible against Jankovic, listless and dispirited; yet still she found some competitive drive inside which forced her to come back and win the third set and the match.
In the finals Williams faced third-ranked Li Na of China. The 31-year-old Li had worked hard on fitness, and it showed, both in considerably bigger legs and her ability to move more explosively and to hit with power—never a problem for her to begin with. Li had gotten stronger and more precise in every match she played in Istanbul, even taking some pace off her balls to improve accuracy.
While Serena had had to dig deep to battle back and beat Jankovic in three to reach the finals, Li cruised by fifth-ranked Petra Kvitová 6–4, 6–2 looking better with each passing game.
The world-number-one looked distracted and deflated when she took the court against Li. Williams played tired in the first set, with no power or pace or footspeed. She didn’t even bother trying to chase some shots; her serve, normally by far the best in the business, was weak. She lost her serve twice in the first five games.
Meanwhile Li Na, who had lost 16 straight sets and nine of ten matches to the American powerhouse, seemed ready to shake off the past and turn the tables. Li played excellent tennis, hitting angles, winning at the net, and taking full advantage of every weakness shown by Serena.
Li kept hitting amazingly accurate two-handed crosscourt backhands off every wide, weak Serena serve. Li made few errors and hit many winners; her only weakness was an inaccurate first serve—she only got 30 percent into play, but she won all of those, and with her opponent so sluggish it didn’t matter.
It looked like Li Na would finally break her losing streak against Serena Williams; it looked like Li would finally rid herself of the thought that Williams would always beat her. Li ended the 16-set streak by winning 6–2.
What Li couldn’t break was Serena Williams’ desire to win.
Serena opened the set serving, and got ahead, but soon found herself at deuce. She finally hit a strong serve and put away the return for Ad. Li beat her at the net to get back to deuce, and again Serena fought back to get the advantage, this time screaming after making the point.
As it had in the third set against Jankovic, whatever it is deep inside Serena Williams that drives her to compete, awoke and started growing.
Seven times Williams got an advantage, only to have Li rip a crosscourt backhand past her. Then Li hit a great return and earned break point—but Williams wasn’t breaking. She shrieked in anger, or to inflame herself or for whatever reason but it worked; she got back to deuce, then ad, then hit a serve too strong for Li to manage.
It was only a hold of serve, but it marked the turning point. Williams broke Li in the next game, then held at Love as Li started making errors.
The tide had turned, but Li wasn’t ready to stop swimming. She hit more winners, forehand and backhand; she came to the net and won points. But with every shot Serena Williams grew stronger, and with every point Williams won, the thought grew in Li that Williams was the one player Li couldn’t beat.
Li ended the set losing her serve with a pair of double faults and two unforced errors.
Li started Set Three the same way, losing her serve with a pair of double faults. Completely composed and confident through her previous matches, Li lost her temper and shouted angrily at her coaches’ box. Her serve, which she had gotten to 65 percent in the second set, fell apart again, and her accuracy went from excellent to pitiful.
Williams broke Li in the third game, then broke her at Love in the fifth, assisted by another pair of double faults.
Serving for the match at 5–0, Serena showed she was still fragile. She hit a pair of double faults herself and fell from 30–0 to deuce. She hit an ace, then netted a ball and nearly exploded in anger—but she caught herself, put it aside, and refocused.
Four times she fought to deuce, and three time couldn’t close the deal. Finally, she hit a pair of brilliant backhands up the line to win game, set, match, and her fourth career WTA Championship—and likely the one which will mean the most to her as her career carries on.
Serena always knew she had superior skills, and sufficient drive to win to beat her opponents. Now she knows that when her mind and body desert her, she has something deep inside which will allow overcome herself, and then her opponent.