Friday, September 6, 2013

Tales from Na Na Land

Not long ago, some of us were hanging out in the Backspin Lounge, and someone wondered: Where does Li Na go when she "goes off"? The answer? Na Na Land, of course.

Unfortunately, the Chinese star chose the U.S. Open semifinals as the time for her latest trip to Na Na Land. Just half an hour after the television commentators said that the second semifinal had to be better than the first one, Li found herself not just down a set, but down a set 0-6. It wasn't just that Serena Williams was serving up a storm and returning just as well; it was that Li was flat, hesitant and out of rhythm.

The second set didn't look like it was going to be any better for Li, but then, suddenly, she was plucked out of Na Na Land and deposited back into Reality, which wasn't pretty. Li then went about picking up her serve, hitting the lines right at Williams' feet, and rushing the net. But the clock was ticking, and the 5th seed soon found herself serving at 2-5. And it was then that she had a true "Li Na moment." She saved six match points in a game that went on for almost 14 minutes. That one game was what the entire match should have been.

Li held for 3-5, and for a moment, it looked like she might break Williams when she served for the match. That wasn't to be, however, and Williams advanced to the final, and a chance to win her 17th major.

Williams' opponent, once again, will be Victoria Azarenka, and the 2nd seed will definitely have to raise her level if she intends to get the title. She looked awkward playing her semifinal against Flavia Pennetta, and Pennetta let go of so many chances to make the match more competitive--or to win it. Neil Schlect, writing for the U.S. Open website, sums it up perfectly:

Flavia Pennetta, who had come back from injury and unexpectedly streaked through the draw without losing a set, arrived at her first U.S. Open (and Grand Slam) semifinal. She had upset high seeds and slammed the door on one of the summer’s hottest players, Simona Halep.

On a perfect 70-degree and cloudless early autumn afternoon, Pennetta met No. 2 Victoria Azarenka and impressively broke serve five of six times in the match.

Pennetta lost, 6-4, 6-2.

That’s not a misprint. 

And so it went. Azarenka "found a way," as they say, to not only win, but to win in straight sets. Pennetta, playing in her first major semifinal, could probably kick herself for ultimately not taking advantage of Azarenka's service weaknesses. The 2nd seed knows how to win the big points, and she emphatically did that today. But her opponent in the final isn't likely to give her the luxury of "finding a way"-- Azarenka has to serve better if she is to have a chance against Williams.

Last year, Williams and Azarenka played in a highly competitive and thrilling U.S. Open final. Perhaps memories of that final--and memories of losing it--will give Azarenka the motivation she needs to clean up her act.

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