Only 2½ weeks after giving China its first Grand Slam singles championship at the French Open, and five months after being the runner-up at the Australian Open, Li was knocked out in the second round at the All England Club on Thursday, the grass-court tournament’s biggest upset so far.
The third-seeded Li wasted two match points and succumbed to the speedy serving of wild-card entry Sabine Lisicki of Germany in a 3-6, 6-4, 8-6 loss. Lisicki hit 17 aces, including one at 124 mph, which the WTA said is the fastest serve by a woman all season.
“I mean, (from) the first point ’til the end of the match, every serve was, like, around 117 miles (per hour),” said Li, 14-1 in Grand Slam play in 2011 before Thursday. “I mean, this is impossible for the women.”
Elsewhere, Serena Williams again was pushed to three sets before winning, then complained a bit about having to play on Court 2 instead of Centre Court or Court 1; Roger Federer overwhelmed his opponent in straight sets, then basked in a standing ovation after playing under the retractable roof at the main stadium for the first time; and two-time French Open runner-up Robin Soderling came back after losing the first two sets to beat 2002 Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt 6-7 (5), 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-4.
Li appeared headed to the third round, too. Leading 5-3 in the third set, she was a point away from victory while Lisicki served at 15-40. But Lisicki got out of that jam this way: 122 mph service winner, 123 mph service winner, 124 mph ace, 122 mph ace.
“Obviously, a good serve is important, but also, you have to use it well,” the 62nd-ranked Lisicki said. “And I think I’m serving quite smart, as well. So it definitely helped me (Thursday).”
Talk about an understatement.
Thanks to that serve, Lisicki is no stranger to success on grass, reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2009 and winning a tuneup tournament this month at Birmingham, England; she’s won 12 of her last 13 matches on the slick surface.
But she missed five months last year because of a left ankle injury, temporarily dropping out of the top 200 in the rankings.
“Oh, it’s been terrible. I mean, I really, literally, had no muscles in my left calf after seven weeks on crutches. So I had to start to learn how to walk again,” the 21-year-old Lisicki said. “It’s been a very, very long road back, and tough road back. But that makes those moments right now sweeter.”
Lisicki’s return game was good, too, and she broke twice when Li served for the match, at 5-4 and 6-5.
Li became an instant star in China with her French Open title; more than 100 million people in the nation of 1 billion watched that final on TV. Li may not have been kidding when she asked reporters at Wimbledon not to write that she’d be flying home now, so there might be a chance to have some private time with her husband.
Even though her Grand Slam triumph came so recently, Li already could sense a change on court — not in herself, but in other players.
“I didn’t feel different. I didn’t feel pressure. I mean, (the) only change is, right now, opponents see you different,” she said. “Everyone (who plays) against you, they’re feeling nothing to lose. So they can play (their) best tennis.”
By the looks of things so far, Williams is going to face a true test every time she takes the court this year at Wimbledon, which she has won four times.
She was forced to a third set for the fourth consecutive match since returning to the tour after nearly a year away because of a series of health scares. And while she eventually seized control to beat Simona Halep of Romania 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, it’s clear that Williams is still working her way into shape.
“I definitely feel like I started slow,” said Williams, who wondered aloud afterward why she and her sister Venus each had to play on Court 2, while top men like Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Andy Murray have been on one of the two principal courts for all of their matches this week.
“I got a little tight out there,” Williams added, “and I just need to relax.”
Consider it a testament to her skill and grit that she’s into the third round. This is only her second tournament in the last 11½ months after two operations on her right foot, clots in her lungs, and surgery to remove a pool of blood that gathered under the skin of her stomach.
Her father, Richard, said he would have preferred if she would have waited another three months before coming back, just to be sure she was fully healed.
Now that Williams is back, the question is what these shaky performances portend for the latter stages of the tournament, when presumably she will face tougher opposition than the 58th-ranked Halep or the 61st-ranked Aravane Rezai, her foe Tuesday.
“She’s a little rusty, which would be expected,” Richard Williams said. “I think Serena, right now, is playing about maybe 49 or 50 percent. So I think it’ll be a while before she gets to where she should be.”
Williams’ match was played under a threatening sky, and rain fell intermittently later; three of the tournament’s four days had delays. Four second-round women’s matches were postponed, including those involving 2004 champion Maria Sharapova, 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli and top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki.
Some matches were halted in progress, including 122nd-ranked Ryan Harrison of the United States against No. 7-seeded David Ferrer of Spain. Harrison was leading 2-1 in sets, but Ferrer was up a break at 4-2 in the fourth, when play was suspended because of darkness.
In a match that barely finished — there are no artificial lights other than at Centre Court — marathon man John Isner of the United States failed to earn a single break point and lost to 16th-seeded Nicolas Almagro of Spain 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 6-3.
Almagro won despite Isner’s 28 aces on Court 18 — which also happened to be the site of Isner’s record-breaking, 11-hour, 5-minute victory over Nicolas Mahut in the first round at the All England Club in 2010, a match that ended 70-68 in the fifth set.
“It’s the same as any other court,” Isner said, “but it was a bit weird out there.”