Li said that because this is the final tournament of another long, draining year, her mind can’t help but drift to a place far away, one deprived of anything yellow, round and fuzzy. And let’s face it: Nothing says winning tennis quite like a daydreaming sojourn strolling along the Seine, spending time in one of the dazzling waterfront palazzos of Venice, Italy, or wherever Li decides to go. And for the record, she was mum on her plans.
Her priorities in order or not, Li’s mindset and, as it turns out, her game were right where they needed to be Thursday in Istanbul -- at least for the 2 hours, 11 minutes it took her to finally knock off Jankovic 6-3, 2-6, 6-3. Li improved to 2-0 in the round-robin stage of the year-enders with one more match to play before a potential appearance in the semifinals.
After three days of fairly routine matches, this encounter was the first three-setter of the WTA Championships. And by all accounts, it was a sloppy match marred by far more ebbs and flows than it did brilliant shot-making. Li more than doubled her unforced errors (45) to winners ratio (21), while Jankovic’s stats read 36 blunders to only 17 winners.
"So, of course, it was tight, yeah, but at least is better than last two years," Li said. "Jelena always tough match because she's very good, different player, so I think today I was running a lot, forward and backward on the court. It's very tough match."
Li was helped by some stellar net play. Since hiring coach Carlos Rodriguez a little more than a year ago, Li has made a commitment to moving forward. That’s become a seminal part of a more aggressive game plan to help Li match up with today’s power hitters. Against Jankovic, Li came to net 23 times and won 19 of those points, which was the clear difference-maker in this match.
In her on-court interview, Li said that “today wasn’t only about technique.” It was one that demanded focus, as taxing an ask as it is this time of year, at the right times.
Li’s final group contest will come against Victoria Azarenka, who looked anything like a world No. 2 in her last match, a loss to Jankovic, on Wednesday. Azarenka hasn’t tried to conceal her fatigue. Her unvarnished admission after that match that she is pretty much mentally and physically fried makes you wonder if she really wants to be in Istanbul at all. In other words, Li’s yearning to be elsewhere aside, she might be considered the favorite.
If Li can get by Azarenka, she’d become the 10th player to sweep the group stage since 2003. The past four players who have pulled off this feat (including Serena Williams twice) all won the WTA Championships. Williams did it last year and Petra Kvitova two years ago, when she played primo tennis en route to the title, a run that also led her to a Fed Cup championship a week later.
"I mean, if I lose the easy tomorrow, maybe [I have] no chance?," Li said. "I don't know. So still have to fight tomorrow, one more round for the group."
Jankovic played a feisty match. It was far more competitive than the last time she played Li, which was earlier this year at the US Open, where Li won 15 straight points en route to a 6-3, 6-0 57-minute drubbing.
“Today we had a great fight,” Jankovic said. “We both fought very well, and I managed to come back in the second set and played really well there, served much better.
“In the third set, it was just a couple of points. I got broken in that game. She lobbed me, and the ball went on the line. That was some few crucial points in that stage at the end of that third set and made a difference.”
Nothing ever seems to come routinely for the Serbian star, whether it’s her unique ability to play long matches when they shouldn’t be or her penchant for drama. And because of her history of histrionics, Jankovic can also be the victim of taking a bad rap when it’s not necessarily warranted. She has worked vigilantly to get back into the upper crust of the tennis world.
Jankovic, who finished 2008 as the top-ranked player in the world, fell to No. 22 a year ago, and the reality is that she wasn’t a player we recently paid particular attention to in terms of Grand Slam success.
But her ebullience and appreciation of being part of the year-end championships again is obvious. She’s committed to winning, even if she doesn’t.
"It's not surprise because [Jankovic] was former No. 1, so she has the level to be the top 10," Li said. "Maybe now she get more confident."
Despite the loss, the good news for Jankovic is that she has a pretty good chance of reaching the final four in Istanbul. On Friday, she’ll play her last round-robin match against Sara Errani, who is the weakest player in their group. If Jankovic wins, and Li beats Azarenka, Jankovic will advance. If Jankovic and Azarenka win, there will be a logjam atop the white group, which means the two players with the highest percentage of sets won will go through. Confused yet?
But it was Li who put herself into a prime position to reach Saturday’s semifinals. There is also a chance she can overtake Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska to move to No. 3 in the world if she reaches the final with a 3-0 round-robin record or wins the title. But that’s all gravy.
For now, Li only needs to worry about booking her flight to an exotic resort of her liking. That seems to be working quite nicely.