INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - You would not expect a player who hit only 11 winners in a match to defeat an opponent who racked up 30 but that was exactly Flavia Pennetta's winning formula at the BNP Paribas Open last night.
Pennetta played solid, consistent tennis to defeat the tournament's No.1 seed Li Na, 76(5) 63, and advance to the biggest final of her career where she will face No.2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska on Sunday.
Pennetta was a master of the unspectacular, playing more through the middle of the court than chasing angles and rarely pulling the trigger to end the point against an opponent she only got four games against at the Australian Open in January.
Pennetta's victory was built much more around patience, defense and baiting - understanding that tennis is a game dominated by errors and her opponent was missing more than usual. Pennetta would commit 43 errors for the match but with Li committing 38 just on her forehand alone and 74 in total her game style was the perfect weapon against an erratic opponent.
Several things fell Pennetta's way in the match, starting with getting out of an early jam down two break points at 1-2 in the opening set. Pennetta survived the scare and broke Li to love in the following game and always seemed to have her nose in front for the rest of the match.
It's amazing how many times players at all levels of the game lose the match if they don't break serve the first time they earn break point opportunities. This hidden momentum force dramtically impacts the self-confidence meter of both competitors and moves pressure from the player facing break points to the player who failed to seize the moment.
Li battled her own demons the entire match, particularly with her serve and forehand which are known to go missing at times. Li committed back to back double faults serving at 3-3 in the opening set and then followed that up with four doubles faults in her next service game at 4-4. Things got worse as Li double faulted the set away serving at 5-6 in the tie-breaker.
To Pennetta's credit she clearly recognized her opponent's problems and kept feeding Li balls that would entice her to play big and miss.
Li got her toss higher in the second set and only double faulted once for the rest of the match but she could not fix her errant forehand which committed 31 groundstroke errors and seven return errors. Li's last service game, serving at 3-4 in the second set, featured three forehand errors which easily handed the break of serve to Pennetta.
Li's real window of opportunity came at the start of the second set when she broke in the opening game and had a break point to go up 3-0 with two breaks of serve but it slipped through her grasp. On break point Pennetta hit a great forehand defensive lob followed by a high, heavy crosscourt forehand that just caught the line and Li missed her forehand wide. A game of inches was all falling Pennetta's way.
Pennetta kept manufacturing her own luck, including an approach forehand net cord winner at deuce in the last game to provide her match point. Pennetta correctly went for very few winners in the match but saved her best to last - a scorching backhand down the line hit from well behind the baseline that landed short in the service box but caught the line to deliver one of the biggest victories of her career.
Craig O'Shannessy (@BrainGameTennis) is the leading analyst for wtatennis.com throughout the 2014 season, utilizing SAP Data & Insights to uncover the patterns and percentages that dominate the game. Visit Craig's website at www.braingametennis.com for more expert strategy analysis.