CINCINNATI, OH, USA - Li Na and Angelique Kerber battled through to the Western & Southern Open final on an electric Saturday night, holding off two of the most powerful players on the WTA in a pair of three set semifinals.
The No.9-seeded Li was the first to advance to the Premier-level final, ending Venus Williams' Cincinnati surge, 75 36 61. Williams had already taken out two Top 10 players en route to her first WTA semifinal in almost two years - Sara Errani in the third round, Sam Stosur in the quarterfinals - but after a mid-match lapse, losing seven of nine games from 75 20 up to find herself at 1-all in the third, Li caught fire again, reeling off five games in a row to close it out.
Williams struggled with her back during the match. "I pretty much couldn't serve," she said afterwards. "I wanted to try though. Especially since this was my first semifinal of the year, I wanted to try to see if I could get to the final.
"Right now I don't know why my back hurts. I just know it hurts. After this I'm going to get an evaluation and see what exactly is happening with it."
Li's lapse could have come from Williams' second set injury timeout. "When she called the physio, I think I lost my mind a little bit, because it looked like the match was over," Li said. "But after she stood up she was still fighting."
Li has now beaten Williams in all three of their career meetings, at the Olympics in 2008, the Australian Open in 2010 and here in Cincinnati this week.
Li is now through to her fourth WTA final of the year, but she has gone 0-3 in her first three, finishing runner-up at three other Premier-level tournaments in Sydney, Rome and Montréal last week. She is 5-8 lifetime in WTA finals.
"The last two years I never got one point in North America - it's amazing I'm in another final," Li said. "After Montréal I felt very tired. I got here and my coach sent me a text message saying the most important thing is the first match here.
"I don't know what happened, but the ball is going in the court all the time."
The No.5-seeded Kerber followed Li into the final later at night with a streaky 61 26 64 win over No.4 seed Petra Kvitova, losing six straight games from 61 21 up but regrouping to beat her fellow lefty in a closely-fought deciding set.
"I did a lot of mistakes," Kvitova said. "I knew if I played my solid game and went for my volleys I could win, but my mistakes were the problem. But it's a great result for me to win Montréal and be in the semifinals here in Cincinnati."
"My tactic was to move very well and bring the balls back and deep," Kerber said. "I started very well in the second set, but she started to hit winners and I had no chance actually, but I just kept fighting until the last point.
"It's amazing to be here in the final - for sure right now this is one of my favorite tournaments. I came here to get a lot of matches before New York, and I beat Serena and Petra and I'm in the final. I'm enjoying myself so much."
Li leads Kerber in their head-to-head, 4-1, though they have split their two 2012 meetings, Kerber winning at Indian Wells and Li winning at Madrid.
"She moves very well and can hit the balls very deep and very hard, and she has a great serve - it will be a tough match," Kerber said. "I need to play 100% to have a chance to win. It's the final; I will enjoy it, I've enjoyed my whole week."
Kerber was also asked to pick a winner in the men's final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. "That's tough, but I like Roger," she said.