ROME, Italy - China's Li Na broke a quarterfinal jinx and powered through to the semifinals of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia on Friday, where she will face the woman most likely to threaten her French Open title: Serena Williams.
Li had been stopped in the quarterfinals of her last four events, at Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart and Madrid, but this time the No.8-seeded Chinese came out blazing against Dominika Cibulkova, storming out to a 61 40 lead; things got tricky towards the end as the No.14-seeded Slovak pushed the second set to a tie-break, but Li closed it out right when she really needed to, 61 76(4).
"On the tour nobody gives a match to you," Li said. "It's hard to stay at a high level all the time. In just a second your mind can go somewhere else, and that can be a problem for me - I'm not worried about my forehand and backhand.
"But I'm happy I was able to finish it in the end today."
It has been almost a year since Li made headlines around the world by becoming Asia's first Grand Slam champion at Roland Garros. The Chinese would then struggle through the rest of the season, but she seems back.
"It had never happened in my life before and I didn't really know what to do," Li said. "I had many things going on off the tennis court during that time, and I think I lost focus on the court - I was concentrating, but just not focused.
"I'm feeling good this year though. And I will go back to Roland Garros not feeling too much pressure - yes I will be defending my title but I'm the champion and should feel great when I go there, and just enjoy the tennis."
The No.9-seeded Williams only spent 28 minutes on the court in her match against Flavia Pennetta, as the last Italian standing in the draw was forced to retire due to a right wrist injury after falling behind 4-0 in the first set.
"I hope she feels better soon," Williams said. "For me there's a good side, that I've played every day without a day off, so after this press conference I'll probably just do some commitments then go back and relax the rest of the day.
"But of course it's always difficult to be injured. She was playing so well."
Williams is now 17-0 on clay this year, which is beginning to look a lot like the last time someone put together the perfect clay court season: Justine Henin's 24-0 run in 2005. In fact Williams' 17-match clay court winning streak is the longest since Henin eventually extended her run to 27 the following year.
"I've played on ice and on water. I can play on any surface," Williams added.
Williams leads Li in their head-to-head, 5-1, although every single match in that list has been close, and this is also their first meeting on clay.
"I've watched Serena play many matches over the years on TV," Li said. "She has a huge serve and she's a great mover and I'm really looking forward to playing her, not just to win or lose, but I look forward to it as a challenge.
"I'll just go on court and play, and try not to do anything stupid."