Serena rallies to reach Sony semis

Serena Williams, who has the potential to blow anyone off a tennis court, has been keeping things interesting here at the Sony Open.

Just to make sure her army of South Florida fans don’t get complacent, Serena keeps having to dig herself out of difficult situations. On a sunny but cool afternoon, Serena found herself down set point at 2-5 in the second set against China’s Li Na but eventually fought back to reach the semifinals with a 6-3, 7-6 victory.

As usual, Serena did not spare herself for the lapses that allowed the former French Open champion to get back into the match.

“Look, I just can’t hit any more double faults,” she said, referring to the clutch of five that contributed to her losing serve twice at the beginning of the second set. “It’s embarrassing and unprofessional. I hit about 50 in one game and it was outrageous. It was like, at this point, I should not be a professional tennis player. But I like to believe I’m a problem solver.”

In the crunch, when Li Na had come up with a terrific backhand winner up the line to reach set point, Serena solved the problem by producing one of her best first serves.

Then, moving up a gear by hitting ever harder off the ground, Serena forced errors and was rewarded when Li double faulted on game point. The Chinese No. 1 continued to battle away in the determined manner that has made her a hero to millions of fans back home, and forced a tiebreak.

The quality of tennis had been improving all the time and there were eight consecutive first serves put in court in the breaker before Li, serving at 5-6, came in behind her delivery only to see Serena smack a huge forehand cross-court winner to clinch a hard-earned victory.

The shot was followed by a huge Serena leap of joy which had the crowd on its feet.

“Yeah, I don’t usually leap like that in the quarterfinal but it was just a good shot and I kind of expected her to get it," Williams said. "She didn’t and I was glad because she played such a good tie-breaker. I think it was the only point I won on her serve.”

The only downside of the afternoon for the world No. 1 was a hip problem that occurred early in the match. “I just had a bit of a problem, a little with the hip,” she said. "It was really weird. I don’t remember (how I did it).”

After a couple of games Serena was moving freely again and there is no reason to believe that it will hamper her progress for the rest of the tournament.

Not for the first time, Serena now finds herself as the last American in the tournament. But on this occasion, it also makes a nasty piece of history. Following Sam Querrey’s demoralizing 6-1, 6-1 loss to the sixth-seeded Czech Tomas Berdych out on the Grandstand, there will be no American man in the quarterfinals for the first time since this event was created as The Lipton at Delray Beach in 1985.

Querrey, the new American No. 1, did not try to hide his disappointment.

“Just one of those awful days,” he said. “I missed routine forehand after routine forehand. My first-serve percentage was at 40, I’m guessing.”

It was actually 39 percent and it merely reflected a day that was a disaster for a player who is trying to improve on his current ATP ranking of 20.

“It was just bad out there,” he said. “I can’t have an excuse. I can’t do that against those guys if I want to move up. I played him three times last year and they were all tight. But you know, the more you miss the harder it gets to get the ball in. I just want to put this behind me and move on the Davis Cup.”

When the team, which includes John Isner and the Bryan brothers, arrives in Boise, Idaho, to play a Serbian team that includes world No. 1 Novak Djokovic next week, captain Jim Courier will have quite a job on his hands. The team atmosphere is a good one for players to get over personal ills but neither Isner, who lost yesterday to Marin Cilic, nor Querrey, after this debacle, will be imbued with confidence. Courier, luckily, is a good motivator — as he will need to be.

No. 3 seed Andy Murray swept past Italy’s Andreas Seppi 6-2, 6-4, while Richard Gasquet of France overcame the loss of the first set to win a terrific battle with Spain’s Nicolas Almagro 6-7, 7-6, 7-5. Earlier, Austrian veteran Jurgen Melzer also recovered from an early setback to beat another Spaniard, Albert Ramos 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.