In the semifinals of the 2013 U.S. Open, Serena Williams will face Li Na in a clash between two of the top five seeds in the tournament. This will mark the third match between the two during the 2013 WTA season, with Williams taking the first two outings.
If Williams hopes to make it three in a row, she'll need to use her serve to perfection.
Williams has been nothing short of dominant in New York City, working her way to the semifinals without dropping a single set. Furthermore, she has won six separate sets by a count of 6-0 and lost more than three games in a set just once.
It took her less than an hour to win 6-0, 6-0 during the quarterfinals.
Suddenly, it seems foolish to say Serena needs to focus on one specific area of her game.
With that being said, Na has long been one of Williams' most ferocious opponents, refusing to back down and battling the world's No. 1 to the final point of every match. With the opportunity to play for a Grand Slam on the line, Na will give nothing short of a magnificent effort.
It all starts with her masterful return game.
Na's Return Game
As previously mentioned, Williams and Na have met twice in 2013, playing at the 2013 Sony Open and 2013 Western & Southern Open. Serena won both matches, taking home a 6-3, 7-6 (7-5) win at the former and a 7-5, 7-5 victory at the latter tournament.
Why was Na so close to pulling out the upset at the Western & Southern Open? Her return game.
Both matches appear close, with the clash at the Sony Open in Miami, Florida, including a lopsided first set. During the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio, Na managed to stay in things by fighting off Serena's second serve.
Just check the numbers.
According to WTATennis.com, Na won 70.0 percent of the points on Williams' second serve during their clash in Cincinnati. Serena may have won the match, but escaping 7-5, 7-5 displays just how close Na managed to keep the match with her domination of Williams' second serve.
For that reason, there's nothing more critical for Serena than getting her first serve in.
Na has made a living out of making her opponent beat her, returning any shot that has been sent her way. She has the ability to hit pinpoint strokes of her own, and when aggressive, she is lethal; however, what Na does best is counter power with her precision and toughness.
If Serena doesn't convert her first serve with consistency, she'll be reminded of that truth and potentially face an upset. Everyone else in Na's path has lost due to these very traits.
Per USOpen.org, Na is tied for seventh at the event with 72 second-serve return points won.
Serena's First-Serve Dominance
As previously stated, Na was absolutely dominant on Serena's second serve at the Western & Southern Open. What Na—and the rest of the world for that matter—has been unable to do is figure out Serena's first serve.
Per WTATennis.com, Williams won 68.3 percent of the points off of her first serves against Na at the Western & Southern Open.
During the 2013 U.S. Open, it's been more of the same from the 16-time Grand Slam event champion. According to USOpen.org, Williams has 21 aces, third at the event and a major source of her success.
Even when players are returning those shots, Serena is winning a tournament-best 81 percent of her first serve points, per USOpen.org.
Serena has, arguably, the greatest serve in the history of women's tennis. Not only is there an overwhelming level of power and speed, but Williams puts unpredictable spin on the shot that keeps her opponents off balance.
As for why she's been so successful in 2013, it's likely due to the fact that she's posted a U.S. Open-best average serve speed of 125 miles per hour, per USOpen.org. That will be the key for Serena, as she attempts to keep Na in precarious positions so she can convert easy points and avoid break points.
With Na dominating the opposition's second serve, Serena needs to continue to play at this elite level—she certainly won't have an easy time breaking Na.
For all that has been made of Serena's ability to serve with power and precision, we seem to be forgetting that Na is just as capable. While Na isn't as powerful as Williams, her serve is one of the best in the world.
According to USOpen.org, Na actually leads all women at the U.S. Open with 29 aces. Oddly enough, Na is also on the outside-looking-in of the top 17 players in terms of average serve speed, per USOpen.org.
As we said, Na is all about precision.
With Na serving so well—winning 75.1 percent of her first-service points, per USOpen.org—this places pressure on Williams to defend her own. With Na breaking her opponent with virtual ease, that means just one thing: If Serena is going to advance as planned, she must serve at an impeccable level.
Na won the 2011 French Open and has been a finalist at the 2011 and 2013 Australian Open. She's reached the quarterfinals in three separate Wimbledon events, including 2013, and reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 2009.
Na isn't another Sloane Stephens or Carla Suarez Navarro but instead an established and elite competitor.
Williams is the favorite to win this match, nonetheless, and there's no one in their right mind that will tell you otherwise. With that being established, Williams and Na have played close matches throughout their careers, and Na's ability to counter Serena's serve is the primary reason why.
If Williams is to advance to the U.S. Open final in 2013, she'll need her serve to be at its best against her toughest foe yet.