CINCINNATI, OH, USA - Serena Williams edged Li Na in a very tight two-setter in the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open on Saturday night, 75 75, making her first ever final at the Premier event.
Both sets had major momentum swings. In the first set Williams was up 4-1, Li won four games to lead 5-4 but double faulted on set point, then Williams snuck it out; the second set was similar, Williams going up 4-2, Li winning three games and serving for it at 5-4, but Williams sneaking it out again.
At the end of the day the No.1-seeded Williams tightened the screws just enough at the right times against the No.5-seeded Li, who has had great times here - in fact she was the defending champion.
Williams beamed in her on-court interview afterwards, also giving props to a member of the crowd.
"I'm really excited to be in the final," she said before pointing behind the far side of the court. "And I want to give a shout out to some guy back there - thank you! You helped me today. Actually everyone was so amazing - I didn't feel great, but you were all so amazing today. Thank you very much!"
And on sneaking out both sets after her very, very dangerous opponent served for both of them?
"Whenever I'm down I just get really relaxed," the 16-time Grand Slam champion and World No.1 said. "I was just thinking, 'You know Serena, just try to do your best, and just try to do what you can.'"
Williams' best performance at this tournament before this year was the quarterfinals last year, where she fell to Angelique Kerber. Now she's one win away from her 55th WTA title, which would put her in a three-way tie for seventh-most WTA titles all-time, alongside Virginia Wade and Lindsay Davenport.
Additionally, by virtue of her win over Li, Williams clinched the Emirates Airline US Open Series.
"It's exciting because no matter what happens tomorrow, I've won something," Williams said. "And also it's always exciting to win the US Open Series, especially being from America and playing all of the tournaments in the USA, especially tonight. There was so much support. It was almost overwhelming, but it was just really cool. I haven't really felt that a lot. So it definitely feels really, really good."
And in Sunday's final she will play the No.2-seeded Victoria Azarenka, who won her semifinal match at night against No.14 seed Jelena Jankovic. Williams leads Azarenka in their head-to-head series, 12-2.
Li may not have defended her title, but she was still happy with the way she was playing in Cincy.
"Last year was better, but I was pretty happy with the way I was hitting the ball here, especially today's match," Li said. "Even when I lost the first set, I was trying to come to the net as much as I could.
"I tried my best tonight. I had some chances. I didn't catch them, but I can do even more."