CINCINNATI, OH, USA - Her momentum started building in Montréal last week, and in Cincinnati this week she hit full stride. On Sunday Li Na won her first WTA title since her famous French Open triumph 14 months ago, and it was at a very big one too - the Premier-level Western & Southern Open in Cincy.
Fresh off her third Premier-level final of the year in Canada, where she fell in a tough three-setter to Petra Kvitova, Li came to Cincinnati riding a wave of confidence, and with some new blood on her team too - this was her first week with Carlos Rodriguez, of WTA legend Justine Henin fame, as her coach.
The No.9-seeded Li had some struggles during the week, going to three sets with Sorana Cirstea in her opening match and with Venus Williams in the semifinals, but she was on fire at times too, routing Johanna Larsson and the tournament's top seed, Agnieszka Radwanska, in her other matches.
The final against Angelique Kerber was a combination of the two Lis, as she went wild in falling behind 61 31; but she caught fire with her back against the wall, winning nine games in a row to take the second set and go up 4-0 in the third, running away with it against the No.6-seeded German, 16 63 61.
"I felt like she was playing unbelievable in the first set. I was trying to play flat and fast, but she had no mistakes and every ball came back to my side," Li said. "I tried to change something at the beginning of the second set but it didn't work, but I just kept trying and finally it worked. I'm very happy to win this title and now I'll take two days off - I've played a lot of tennis these two weeks."
Li cited a few different things as her inspiration to win the final: "Last night I was thinking about how I was in three finals this year but never won a title. So I was really hungry for the title today. Also, I was having lunch today and saw Roger after he won, having his photo taken - I really wanted to do the same."
Kerber, who had an exceptional week - most impressively taking out Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, snapping the American's 19-match winning streak - had some strong numbers early on in the final, but Li's aggressive game was just too damaging for her, as Li had three times the winners (33 to 11).
"I was giving it my all and fighting until the last point, but she was just better than me," Kerber said. "I had a plan to play aggressively, which I did well in the first set, but then she started playing better and better. I tried to change things but it didn't matter, she had the answers. She was doing everything well."
A year ago, Kerber was playing the qualies at the International-level event in Dallas - now she's No.7 in the world, and about to rise to No.6 on Monday.
"One year ago I was everywhere - I was just in the hundreds, I don't know, like No.90 or No.100," Kerber said. "Now I'm in the finals of Cincinnati, a really big tournament, so there are so many things that have changed in the last year.
"I prefer this year to last year," she added with a smile.
Earlier in the day the doubles title went to No.5 seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, who beat No.8 seeds Katarina Srebotnik and Zheng Jie in the final, 61 63. Hlavackova and Hradecka, fresh off finals at Wimbledon and the Olympics, won their ninth WTA doubles title together - Hlavackova now has 11 WTA doubles titles to her name, while Hradecka now has 14.
"A lot of great teams came here to prepare for the US Open, as we did, so we prepared the best way possible," Hlavackova said. "We've been playing great the whole summer, but even though we've had great results, to go all the way to the title is the best feeling. It's our first since title together since Memphis."
"Despite the loss today, we were very happy we could get to the final in our first time partnering together," Srebotnik said of Zheng. "We beat some tough teams and felt more and more comfortable with every match. It wasn't our best day today, but our opponents played a very solid match and deserved to win."