MIAMI, FL, USA - It's not just talent and hard work that take a player to the top of the game, it's also mental fortitude - and Serena Williams put that on full display on Stadium court at the Sony Open Tennis on Monday, coming back from 62 41 down to defeat Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round.
Williams was struggling to get anything going in the first half of the match - her two winners were far outweighed by 18 unforced errors in the first set, and that trend continued in the first five games of the second set. But after squeaking out a few winners - and starting to squeak those shoes a little bit more - the World No.1 turned it around completely, turning up the heat on her serve and starting to control the proceedings from the baseline, and she eventually squeaked the match out, 26 64 62.
"Mentally I was just struggling," Williams said of the early match deficit. "I was playing a really good opponent and I was making so many unforced errors out there - I couldn't pull myself together.
"But the crowd was great. They started saying, 'Come on Serena,' and someone over there kept telling me to relax and I listened, and I also saw my dad on the sideline and he was sitting there looking so calm and relaxed. I took all of that energy from the crowd and my dad and I knew I could do better."
Williams is known for her comebacks - in fact she has rallied from match point down to win three Grand Slams, something no one else has ever done. She talked about her trademark turnarounds after.
"I think every time is different," Williams told reporters afterwards. "This particular time I just thought to myself, 'Well I've been down worse. It's nothing new. Just keep fighting.' I never give up - it doesn't matter whether it's in life or on the tennis court, I keep fighting. That's what I kept doing today.
"I wasn't feeling my game today, but for me it's about getting through those matches when you don't feel great and then you're still able to come through them and survive and play another round."
Does she do any self-talk when she's down? "I talk to myself a lot," she said. "I look crazy because I'm constantly having an argument with myself. We're going back and forth trying to figure things out.
"I'm talking to myself inside and she's talking back and giving me lip. I give her a little attitude and tell her she sucks and she tells me to shut up. We get into it a little bit. But then we get along."
For Cibulkova it was a bit of déjà vu - in the same round here last year she was up 61 52 against then-World No.1 Victoria Azarenka before falling in three sets. The Slovak has had her fair share of success against top-ranked players though - she has three career wins over reigning World No.1 players.
Next up for the No.1-seeded Williams is No.5 seed Li Na, who survived a furious first set fightback but ended up beating Spanish wildcard Garbiñe Muguruza in straight sets earlier in the day, 76(6) 62.
Li looked headed for an easy first set as she stormed out to a 5-1 lead, but Muguruza fought back, winning five straight games and eventually pushing it to a tie-break; history repeated itself there as Li built a 6-1 lead for quintuple set point - but Muguruza reeled off five points in a row to draw even at 6-6.
Li closed that out, though, and would cruise past Muguruza in the second set to make the final eight.
"I started pretty good until 5-1, but then maybe I was thinking of too many things other than the match, like how windy it was and the heat," Li said after the match. "Suddenly it was 5-6. I knew I had to think point by point again so I started doing that and when it was 6-1 for me in the tie-breaker, I just thought to myself, 'Don't do the same thing again.' But then the same thing did come back again!
"From 6-all I thought, 'This is it, anyone can win.' But I knew even if I lost the first set there were still two sets to go. I just tried not to think about the score, just think about the tennis, and I made it."
Williams leads Li in their head-to-head, 6-1, with Li's win coming at Stuttgart in 2008, when Williams was also No.1. But Williams has won their last four meetings in two-setters, albeit close two-setters.
"I'm going to have to play a tremendous amount better tomorrow than I did today," Williams said. "She's doing great coming off an injury. She's playing great. I think she's been such a solid player."