By Megan Fernandez
MASON, Ohio – The Li Na-Venus Williams clash lived up to its billing as the â€œoldestâ€ semifinal match-up on the WTA Sony Ericsson Tour this season when a sore back entered the picture. Williams, 32, received a massage on court with Li, 30, leading by a set and a break. The treatment helped enough for Venus to come back and send the match to a third set, but as her serve slowed to 64 mph, Li pulled ahead and sealed a 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 victory.
Williams visibly winced and touched her lower back throughout the match. The pain popped up today, surprising Williams, and it hasnâ€™t been diagnosed. Like Juan Martin del Potro, who struggled with a wrist injury in the first menâ€™s semi-final earlier today, she played on valiantly for dignityâ€™s sake, if nothing else. â€œI like to live life with no regrets,â€ she said. â€œI donâ€™t want to look back and feel like I gave up. Thatâ€™s not me. I wanted to go to the very end and at least know that maybe I missed some shots or maybe I wasnâ€™t feeling my best, but I gave it my all.â€
Though 53 ranking spots stand between No. 9-ranked Li and No. 64-ranked Williams, far less separated their play today in rallies. Williamsâ€™ back issue didnâ€™t affect her groundstrokes, and at times the two traded whistling shots from the baseline. Very few offers from either player fell short. Li rarely missed when she pounced on short balls, sending them into one corner or the other. Williams unleashed a couple of vintage swinging volleys and a stinging short-angle backhand that surely must rank among the best sheâ€™s hit all year. But a pair of double-faults on break points from the unseeded Williams handed Li the first set, and her serving woes continued throughout the evening. Williams ended the match with 1 ace and 8 double faults.
Both women are titleless in 2012. Li advanced to her second consecutive WTA Tour Premier 5 final, following her runner-up result last week at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. This week, in Cincinnati, Li met her new coach, Carlos Rodriguez, for the first time. Rodriguez is best-known for having coached Justine Henin, and his partnership with Li is the first high-profile coaching assignment for Rodriguez since the Belgian champion retired.
Though Williams is no stranger to injuries both big and small, she seemed rattled by the unexpected nature of the back pain, which came on during her late-afternoon warm-up. â€œI usually donâ€™t have an injury that affects me that much, like tonight,â€ she said. â€œUsually things pop up and then you have some time to adjust or fix it. Or over time you get used to it to a certain degree. That wasnâ€™t the case today. Itâ€™s really bad luck.â€
Serena Williams watched the match courtside, a more typical supporter for her sister than the cheerblock that turned up for her early this week. The elder Williams was delighted to meet her fellow classmates from Indiana University East, where the seven-time Wimbledon champ is pursuing a business degree through an online program.
Williams has never visited the campus, located about 60 miles away from the tournament site, in Richmond, Indiana. IU Eastâ€™s student body of 3,700 could fit inside the third-largest arena at the Western & Southern Open. On Aug. 14, after Williams won her first-round match against Maria Kirilenko, she met with members of the schoolâ€™s tennis team and one of her math professors. The star, who isnâ€™t taking classes this semester, tweeted a photo of her grinning widely with the group, writing â€œProud to be a Red Wolf!â€ No doubt the feeling is mutual.
Williams will be ranked just inside the top 50 next week, not high enough to earn a seeding at the US Open
Li, who improved to 4-0 in semi-finals this year, will play Angelique Kerber in Sundayâ€™s final. Kerber was a 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 winner tonight over Petra Kvitova, stopping a Li-Kvitova rematch of last weekâ€™s final in Montreal. Kerber, ranked No. 7 in the world, will be going for her third title of the year.
Megan Fernandez is covering the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio for Tennis Panorama News. Follow her updates on twitter at @TennisNewsTPN.