It wasn’t always pretty, but it surely was comprehensive. Today in Melbourne No. 6 seed Li Na took out No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5, 6-3 to reach her third Australian Open semifinal in four years.
Going into this match, the story was about Radwanska’s 2013 streaks. She began the year by winning 13 straight matches, 26 straight sets, and two straight titles. The overall impression was that the Polish No. 1 was unstoppable, at least until she reached one of the three immoveable objects ranked ahead of her. But Li Na had quietly had a very impressive start to the year herself, notching an 8-1 record and a title. Her single loss? To Radwanska in the semifinals of Sydney.
Overall Li Na had a 5-4 advantage over Radwanska, and I was shocked to see that just last year as Aga was breaking through as a top player, Li Na won all three of their hard court meetings:
The first game of this match was quite a statement. (I’ll let you interpret what exactly that statement was.) It went to six deuces and lasted over 12 minutes. Li Na finally won it after saving two break points. You felt during the game that if Li Na lost it, the match would essentially be over. All Radwanska needs is a little psychological opening and she will latch on like a leech and never let go. But the erratic and aggressive pride of China managed to hold that game, despite hitting eight unforced errors in the process. After Aga scrapped out a hold to level the first set at 1-1, this is what the stats looked like: (Li Na is in the blue, Aga is in the yellow.)
It’s noteworthy that while Li Na’s 12 unforced errors in two games is a laughable statistic, Radwanska already had four unforced errors at that time. She typically has about that many in an entire set. Li Na came out of the gates as the aggressive player, and she was going to make sure that the match was on her racket. Radwanska is used to being able to play cat and mouse to craft errors out of her opponent, but Li Na didn’t give her the chance. Li was going to hit errors on her own terms.
This rattled Radwanska just enough to put her off of her game. While calling the counterpuncher’s style “aggressive” would be false, she is deceptively assertive. She is typically in control whether it seems that way or not. She’s constantly thinking out there on court, reading her opponent’s mind and game and learning where their weaknesses are. She then mixes up her shots just enough to expose said weaknesses.
But today she was basically a bystander. She didn’t have the power to rattle Li Na, and with her opponent coming to net frequently and attacking the lines, she wasn’t given the time to carve her way to victory. She was sucked into baseline rallies, trapped helplessly at net, and too often it seemed the only thing she could do was mentally will an error from her opponent. That worked a lot of the time, but as the match wore on Li Na’s aggressive hitting began clean up. It was a bold and brilliant strategy from the 2011 French Open Champion, who is smarter than she gets credit for.
The first set continued to be a seesaw affair. After the first two holds there were four consecutive breaks of serve. Then they both held and then they both exchanged breaks at love to level things at 5-5. Li Na pulled off an impressive hold to take things at 6-5, and she was able to break her rather helpless opponent to take the first set 7-5.
So Li gave away over a full set’s worth of UEs yet still managed to take set 1.
— Foot Fault (@FootFault_) January 22, 2013
The second set was really not much to write home about. An angry Radwanska won the first eight points of the second set to go up a break, but the second Li Na started muscling the ball more like she did in the first set it was all over. The first set took 66 minutes, but the second set was over in nearly half of that. I criticized Radwanska for playing two consecutive weeks to start the season, and while it did seem like she completely ran out of gas at the end of this match, it was hard to tell if it was physical fatigue from playing so often or mental fatigue from being completely taken out of her own match. Either way, it was disappointing to see that she had no “Plan B” and that her Grand Slam quarterfinal record fell to an abysmal 1-6.
As for Li Na, she finds herself into her first major semifinal since her French Open victory eighteen months ago, and it looks like her relationship with coach Carlos Rodriguez is really paying off. I was most impressed with how she was mentally able to keep it together. In one instance she was called for a foot fault down break point, and she managed to shake it off, get her serve in, and win the point. Later in the match she hit a first serve shank into the stands and yet got her second serve in and once again took that point. Most impressively, she only needed one opportunity to serve out each set. That’s pretty amazing.
I proclaimed at the beginning of the year that I thought her partnership with Rodriguez would pay off and that she would have an impressive year, and I’m already patting myself on the back. Besides the fact that she’s in better shape physically and mentally, she is coming to the net way more often which adds a scary dimension to her game. In this match she won 20/24 of her points at net. That will win her a lot of matches.
She will face either Ekaterina Makarova or Maria Sharapova in the semifinals for a chance to make her second Australian Open Final. Count her out at your own peril.