It's not how slow you start; it's how fast you finish.
Serena Williams defeated Li Na, 26 63 60, to win the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships in Istanbul today with a devastating performance once she got her motor running. Williams was in deep trouble early on as she fell behind 1-5 in the first set but would win 13 of the next 17 games including the last nine in a row.
Williams started like "the little engine that could" and finished like a bullet train trying to make up for lost time.
There were several key strategies that evolved as the match unfolded but none were more important than the serving performance of Li. Li was averaging an outstanding 63% in four matches making first serves leading into the final but failed dismally against Williams, making only 49%. In the opening set she only managed to make a low 30% of her first serves but with Williams misfiring she got away with it.
Once Williams got her head in the game in the second set Li needed to rely on the pressure of making first serves - but they all but vanished. In a stretch between her opening two service games of the third set, with the match still well in the balance, Li missed eight consecutive serves, including three straight double faults. It was a very expensive gift.
Li serve and volleyed 12 times in the match and won seven but lost the last four in a row in the third set as Williams got used to the tactic and got her passing shots lower and lower.
Williams by comparison made a tournament high 74% of her first serves, including 14 in a row, to begin the opening service game of the second set. She would make 21 of 24 first serves in that marathon game and saved two break points that would have seen her down a set and a break. Her first serve was a rock when she needed it, while Li's self-destructed.
Once the point developed into a rally Williams went after Li's forehand to break it down. Li did hit nine forehand winners for the match but Williams forced 21 forehand errors and Li also contributed 13 unforced errors. Li's technique lends itself to having an exceptional crosscourt shot but down the line is where the errors flow. Too often Li was on defense and tried to play offense down the line with her forehand, which was not playing to her strength.
Li's third area of deficiency was her return of serve. She made 25 return errors and most of those were not because of the power or accuracy of Williams' serve. Instead of a neutralizing strategy deep down the middle she overhit when she needed to make Williams play. It was a crucial part of the final outcome.
The opening set showed so much promise for Li as she broke Williams to lead 2-1 and really got the sell-out crowd of 16,457 behind her pulling for an upset. She broke Williams by getting the better of a backhand to backhand exchange and went big behind her to force an error on the last shot.
Williams was clearly out of sorts in this early stage of the match and her energy and enthusiasm was subpar. Li double faulted twice in the following service game (10 overall) but played a smart serve and volley tactic on game point as Williams missed a short low passing shot for Li to hold serve.
Li broke again for a 4-1 lead as Williams rolled in a very slow first serve on break point and Li crushed a short angle return backhand winner. Li then held to love and ran away with the set 6-2 a couple of games later.
It was the opening game of the second set where Li's title hopes began to fade. Williams served first and endured nine deuces and saved two break points to finally hold serve and regain some momentum. Li coughed up consecutive forehand return errors to lose the game and you could feel the air rushing out of the stadium. Li would be immediately broken after not moving her feet well enough to a low backhand volley that she dumped in the net on break point. Li would pull back even at 3-3 in the second set and was within 12 points of pulling off the upset but went through a horror patch of losing her serve to love and won one of nine points falling behind 5-3. Li was still a chance with two break points at 3-5 but Williams stepped up and crushed two forehand winners on the break points to eventually hold serve and even the match at a set apiece.
The third set will be one Li will want to soon forget. She failed to convert a game point in her opening service game, served consecutive double faults in her next service game and lost her third service game to love. It didn't end pretty.
Williams battled season-long fatigue to get through three set matches in her semi and final and leaves Istanbul a very worthy champion. She has definitely earned her vacation as the No.1 player in the world.