ISTANBUL, Turkey - Serena Williams won a war of thirty-somethings at the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships - Istanbul 2012 on Wednesday, recovering from a slow start and overcoming some serving trouble to beat Li Na.
Williams, who had won five of the pair's six previous meetings - but had lost their only indoor hardcourt meeting - struggled early, falling behind 4-1, and even after clawing her way back, getting broken at love both times she served for the first set at 5-4 and 6-5. But once she got that set in a tie-break she never seemed in trouble again, winning the second set comfortably to finish it, 76(2) 63.
"I started out really strong in the first game but then started making errors, and Li started playing her game and playing it well - that's all," Williams said. "I was a little tight and my serve wasn't working at all today, maybe towards the end - but that's not how I usually play. The good thing is I can only play better."
The numbers were somewhat scratchy from both players, Williams with a -13 differential of winners to unforced errors (18 to 31) and Li going -17 (19 to 36).
"I know I had a very good beginning of the match, but after I was up maybe I was thinking too much, that I have a chance," Li said. "She had a very good serve in the second set, though. And I tried my best on the court today. I had some chances but wasted them. I hope to do better in my next match tomorrow."
Li was trying to become just the fifth thirty-something ever to beat Williams, after Nathalie Tauziat (at Paris [Indoors] in 2000), Silvia Farina Elia (at Amelia Island in 2005), Jill Craybas (at Wimbledon in 2005) and Patty Schnyder (at Rome in 2009). Tauziat and Farina Elia were 32, Craybas and Schnyder 30.
"When I play Serena it's always tough, and especially to play her in your first match of the tournament," Li said. "When you play Serena, you have to focus every second. If you lose concentration for one second, she'll kill you straight away. You have to be really focused - I was like that at the beginning of the match today, and then I slowed down a little bit and she turned it around."
Williams was asked about Li's recent upswing. "Before winning a Grand Slam she was really hungry and wanted to do well, but she hadn't been able to cross the border, so to say," Williams commented. "But I think now she has a lot of confidence because she has that Grand Slam, she's in history for the rest of her life; she's made so many people proud; she's just playing with no fear."
Williams has now won 45 of her last 47 matches, her only two losses since the beginning of the clay court season coming in the first round of the French Open (to Virginie Razzano) and in the quarters of Cincinnati (to Angelique Kerber).
The World No.3's third round robin match sees her face Victoria Azarenka, against whom she is 10-1 lifetime - but in their last meeting, in the US Open final, the World No.1 led 5-3 in the third set. "She's playing so well this year," Williams said. "I'm going to have to play better than I did in my first two rounds, playing against the No.1 player in the world - but I have nothing to lose."