China’s Li Na claimed a famous scalp on Wednesday when she defeated world No.1 Serena Williams 0-6, 6-1, 6-4 in Stuttgart and pretty much cost the powerfully built American her top world ranking.
In a dramatic match that see-sawed several times, Li rallied after being overwhelmed in the first set to put Williams under immense pressure.
“I was very nervous in the first set and I just didn’t have a chance,” said Li, who lost to Russia’s Dinara Safina in the Olympic Games semi-finals, having beaten Serena’s sister Venus in the quarter-finals.
“I told myself: ‘Come on, it’s only been 20 minutes — you could still win this after an hour.’ I knew I just had to hang in there,” she said.
Williams started the second round match in spectacular style as she demolished Li 6-0 in just 21 minutes.
But despite being overpowered early on, the Chinese star replied by taking a 3-0 lead in the next set and used a strong base-line game to take the second 6-1 in just 28 minutes.
The game was delicately poised at 3-3 in the third when Williams missed her line shot and was broken by Li who extended her advantage to 5-3, but Williams defended three match points and held her serve to give herself a faint hope at 5-4 down.
Li had to defend a break point of her own before hitting an ace to win the match after one hour, 35 minutes.
“I just started to make a lot of errors,” Williams said afterwards. “I pretty much gave it to her, it was like I said: ‘Here you go, you have a win today.’”
“Maybe I started to doubt myself, I made a lot of mistakes which helps her cause,” Williams said. “She played really well, especially in the third set where she just fought for everything.”
Williams looks set to lose her No. 1 ranking to nearest challenger Jelena Jankovic.
“To be quite honest I don’t deserve it playing like that,” Williams said. “But I guarantee I will get it back.”
Also joining Li in the quarter-finals is Olympic champion Elena Dementieva who needed just over an hour to beat Austria’s Sybille Bammer 6-1, 6-4 in Wednesday night’s second-round match.
Earlier, fifth-seed Svetlana Kuznetsova was a big-name casualty in the first round as she lost in three sets to Switzerland’s Patty Schnyder.
The Swiss needed just over two hours to beat the 2004 US Open champion and this year’s French Open semi-finalist 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 to take her place in the second round.
Kuznetsova made a slow start and was quickly on the backfoot as Schnyder broke her early and served out the first set.
The Russian grew stronger and returned the favor in the second set to level the match, but Schnyder held her nerve.
Despite four aces from Kuznetsova in a tense and hard-fought final set, Schnyder broke the Russian, defended a break-point against her and then served out.
Schnyder, 29, ranked 11th in the world has had a successful season so far, reaching the last eight at both the US Open and the French Open.
She will meet another Russian, Nadia Petrova, in the second round.
The second seed of the day to tumble was Polish teenager Agnieska Radwanska when the eighth seed lost to Belarus’ Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 7-5 in the second round.
Beijing bronze medalist Vera Zvonareva was rarely troubled by Slovakia’s Daniela Hantuchova as the seventh seed swept into the second round with a 6-3, 6-2 straight sets win in 78 minutes.
Zvonareva will play France’s Marion Bartoli in the second round.