Nobody does it better than Serena Williams.
That’s why at 32, and despite past health issues and occasional lapses of concentration concerning her game, Williams remains on top of the tennis world.
On a humid and cloud-covered Saturday, Williams, the Sony Open defending champion, showed how she can allow an opponent to savor false hope only to quickly turn them back into mere mortals. That’s exactly the result she achieved in her 7-5, 6-1 win over second-ranked Li Na for a history-making seventh Sony Open title.
The lucky seventh Miami trophy puts Williams in some fancy company. She joined Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf as the only four women to ever win the same tournament at least seven times.
Of course, when asked about the six previous wins, Williams had little in the memory bank. She didn’t ever remember that her first two victories came at the expense of Jennifer Capriati in 2002 and ’03.
“I was actually super excited at the end because I remember sitting here last year trying to get to six,” Williams said. “Obviously I wanted to have the most titles here.”
How perfect it is that the tournament Williams won the most often in her career is at the place she considers home. It’s worth noting that among the Palm Beach Gardens resident’s 59 career titles is five each from three of the four Grand Slams: the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
“It just feels really good to play at home,” Williams said. “For me, there is really no better feeling.
“I guess that I’ve grown up coming to this tournament as a kid, watching so many players, and to be one of those players now is really, really awesome for me.”
As Williams hugged the large crystal Sony Open trophy, and did her bit to bounce along with the music blaring out of the loudspeakers, it seemed nearly impossible that less than an hour before she was two breaks behind in the first set.
“I just remember being down,” she said. “She was playing so well, and at that point I just was trying to stay focused and stay in the game.
“I remember some of the crowd was so intense. I thought, ‘Wow, they really want to see a good match, I’ve got to try harder. I’ve got to do better.’ ”
Li, the reigning Australian Open champion, has been playing precision tennis this season. China’s finest leads the WTA for wins this season at 21-3 and she certainly entertained fans Saturday.
When Li, also 32, challenged Williams in the opening stages of the match, breaking serve in the first and seventh games for a 5-2 lead, it seemed the trophy might go home with her to Beijing.
Yes, for that one brief moment Li could have believed she might finally prevail over Williams for the second time in the 12 matches they’ve played, and for the first time since the 2008 Stuttgart, Germany, tournament.
But Li knows that no one should ever feel too comfortable when playing Williams. You can’t even feel confident when serving for the first set at 5-2 and 5-4, and have a set point at 40-30 in that 10th game.
“Everything only looking great,” a smiling Li said when asked about her lead evaporating as Williams won 11 of the next 12 games. “Is not great.”
“I don’t think I was playing bad. I don’t think [Saturday] I was doing like a wrong game plan.”
Williams finally woke up, revved her engine and found a path to victory although not having her finest serving day. Her serve can knock an opponent out, often clocking in at a speed more frequently seen on the men’t tour. But against Li she managed only a shockingly low 42 percent on first serves.
The fact she has developed more facets to her game to compensate when her serve takes a vacation helped Williams to even the first set at 5-5, hold serve at love in the 11th game, and take advantage of a third set point in the 18-point, 12th game.
“In the past, if my serve wasn’t going great, my whole game kind of went down,” Williams said. “And I think now if my serve isn’t great, it’s OK because I have a great forehand, I have a great backhand, I have great speed.
“If push comes to shove, I will come to the net.”
From that point, Li barely blinked, and the match was over.
Other than holding serve in the second game, the only resistance Li offered in the second set was a stubborn reluctance to surrender her serve in the sixth game. That game featured 20 points, four game points for herself before Williams took advantage of a fifth break point.
In men’s doubles, Bob and Mike Bryan, the top-ranked duo, won their 96th title in a crowd-rocking, 7-6 (10-8), 6-4 win over Colombians Juan Sbastian Cabal and Robert Farah.
It was the Bryans‘ third consecutive title — they also won at Delray Beach and Indian Wells, Calif. It was their third Miami victory and first since winning back-to-back title here in 2007 and ’08.
“There were a lot of Colombians out there,” said Bob Bryan, who lives in nearby Sunny Isles. “They were bringing the noise.
“This was incredible for us, especially to win in such a hostile environment.”
This story was originally published March 30, 2014 12:01 AM.