The world No1 recovered from being a set and a double break behind to overpower her 20-year-old rival 4-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 and book her place in the semi-finals.
Hopes of an all-Williams match-up in the last four were dashed, however, after Venus Williams was on the opposite end of an equally impressive comeback from China’s Li Na.
Venus Williams passed up a chance to serve for the match in the second set and was made to pay as she lost to the 16th seed 2-6, 7-6 (7/4), 7-5 in two hours and 47 minutes. Serena Williams had followed her sister on to Rod Laver Arena in the second match of the day, and admitted she thought she may also be heading out of the tournament after the seventh seed from Belarus led 4-0 in the second set.
“I wasn’t feeling great at that stage,” the four-time winner said. “I was actually thinking, ‘If I lose today and I lose in doubles I think I can catch a flight on Friday’. That’s not what a champion is supposed to think, but that’s what I was thinking I’m just happy to still be here.”
Williams began her remarkable turnaround by reeling off the next five games, and after taking the tie-break the 28-year-old ran away with the match.
“I wasn’t playing my best, especially in the first two sets. I definitely think I played well in the third,” she said. “I was down the whole match from the first point until the end. So I was surprised. I was definitely shocked to win.”
Venus Williams had been just two points away from the match in the second set and lamented her inability to finish the job.
“In tennis you have to close it out,” she said. “It’s not like there’s a clock ticking and then suddenly it’s over. You just have to close it out. I didn’t do that today.”
It was a low-quality match with the players trading 110 unforced errors on Rod Laver Arena, but it was Venus Williams’ mistakes that proved costly as she tired late in the match.
“I felt like sometimes I made some errors,” she said. “I played pretty clean for the first half of the match, but I let the errors creep in. That didn’t help at all.”
Li’s victory means China will have two players in the semi-finals of a major for the first time after Zheng Jie won through to play Justine Henin in the bottom half of the draw.
Li said she hoped it would help the sport grow in the world’s most populated country. “Right now you can see many media from China right here,” she said. “Also, they show the match live. So after the match I get 20 text messages from friends because they saw the match.”
Officials from the China Tennis Association were watching Li, who joined Zheng Jie in the final four. “Everybody was excited,” said Gao Shenyang, the CTA’s deputy director. China’s state-run media called the women ‘Golden Flowers’, and China Central Television showed yesterday’s match live.
Li and Zheng both appear to have prospered from a decision at the end of 2008 to leave China’s state-supported sports system and manage their own careers. Both have since worked with foreign coaches and told state-run media in China that they were happy with the move. However, Gao was eager to highlight the foundations laid in China.
“The Chinese coaches should also feel greatly encouraged because Zheng and Li started their overseas training last year, and they were trained under the domestic system for a longer time,” he said. “It was the Chinese coaches that laid the good groundwork for them.”
No Chinese player has ever broken into the top ten or won a major singles title. Li is ranked No16 in the world, with Zheng at No35.