Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Only worthy foe stares back at Serena Williams in mirror

There is an opponent who can beat Serena Williams.

Her name is Serena Williams.

Perhaps Williams’ doppelganger could do it. Then we might enjoy a cliffhanger, Serena vs. Serena.

All others who accept the challenge are knocked down and swept like crushed paper cups into the overflowing dustbin of players who have submitted to Williams’ immutable force.

She is not infallible, but to beat her, you need her help.

Williams lent Li Na a little assistance early in their Sony Open championship match Saturday, but, affronted by her own merciful acts, she summoned fury and blew away Li 7-5, 6-1.

Williams won her seventh title to tie Andre Agassi as the most successful player of the Miami tournament. In defeating the second-ranked Li, the top-ranked Williams, 32, became the oldest female champ here.

Li forged a 5-2 lead in the first set, and fans settled in for a long fight. Maybe China’s Li, who has found her second wind at age 32, and won the Australian Open two months ago, possessed enough guile and velocity to upend Williams. But Williams broke Li as Li served for the set. The boulder began rolling downhill. Williams won 11 of the next 12 games. It was over so quickly. She defeated Li for the 10th time in a row.

Williams played in fits and starts for the first 45 minutes. Then she cranked up her groundstrokes. Accelerated her feet. Loosened her shoulders. Found her groove. She let Li’s unforced errors accumulate so that she was winning the head game, too.

Hear her roar

When Williams nailed a cross-court forehand return winner in the 10th game, she snarled and roared. Tennis’ tigress had awakened. No one in the sport has a stronger killer instinct.

Williams, winner of $54.6 million in prize money and 17 Grand Slam singles titles, looks like she will make 2014 the year she surpasses Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who each won 18. Unless her health, concentration or motivation fails her, she could pass Steffi Graf (22) by the time she’s 34. Margaret Court (24) is a tougher target, but within reach by 35 or 36.

“I still enjoy playing,” Williams said. “I love the challenge, and I feel like if I can be the best right now then why not continue to be the best and do the best I can?

“There are a lot of records out there. Who knows if I’m ever going to catch them, but at least I know that while I’m still playing well and still healthy, I can try. If not, at least I know I did try. I think that keeps me going.”

The difference between Williams and the rest of the women pros was demonstrated in two 12-minute games against Li that Williams refused to lose. With Li serving at 5-6, trying to force a tiebreaker, Williams failed to convert two set points, then fended off four of Li’s chances to tie. When Li served into her body, Williams retaliated with winners. After a poor shot, she regrouped while Li wore down, committing unforced errors on her final three shots.

Resistance is futile

After wasting a 40-0 lead in the fourth game of the second set, Li had one last gasp in the sixth game, but lost control, got herself into another jam. Williams pounced on a fluffy volley, then amped up the torque on a backhand zinger.

Suddenly, Williams was serving for the title, and after Li lunged for a forehand that sunk into the net, Williams jumped in the air and hopped around, thrusting a balled fist.

“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,” said Williams, who calls Palm Beach Gardens home. She, a fractional owner of the Miami Dolphins, wore an aqua-and-orange outfit in tribute to the team, which could dearly use a lesson in willpower from Williams.

She proved again that she doesn’t unravel, even when contenders such as Li attack with all the aggression they can muster. Williams is an astounding 43-4 against top-10 players the past two years.

Maria Sharapova tried and lost, for the 15th time in a row in what should no longer be called a rivalry.

Caroline Garcia tried, pushed Williams to her only three-set match of the tournament, and was turned back. Garcia’s 6-4 triumph over Williams in the second set was, like Li’s 5-2 lead, a pyrrhic victory — a scrapbook memory that Williams’ opponents can tell their grandchildren about someday.

‘The Serena Open’?

“I think we might have to rename the tournament the Serena Open,” Mary Joe Fernandez said.

Even when Williams’ serve was subpar — her first-serve percentage was a lousy 42 percent to Li’s 60 percent — she compensated by cracking 31 winners to Li’s 16 and keeping 81 percent of her returns in play to Li’s 70 percent. Williams credited her “problem-solving” ability and her all-around game for bailing her out when her serve wasn’t clicking.

And, she can always draw from her bottomless well of pure desire.

“I just remember being down,” Williams said of the first set. “The crowd was intense. I thought, ‘Wow, they really want to see a good match. I’ve got to try harder, I’ve got to do better.’ ”

She and Li joked afterward about their elderly status on tour. Li, staying at a downtown hotel, noticed “many young kids with strange dress” who are attending the Ultra Music Festival.

“I look at them and said, ‘Wow, we are really old,’ ” she said. “Maybe this is the fashion but we cannot take it.”

Williams is so old she couldn’t remember who she beat for her first title at Crandon Park, back in 2002, when she was 20.

“Who was it, Venus?” Williams asked, mentioning her sister.

No, it was top-ranked Jennifer Capriati.

Twelve years later, the opponent still doesn’t matter. Only Serena can beat Serena.

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