MASON, OHIO (AP) - Venus Williams’ reinvigorating week ended with a bad back and gritty comeback that wasn’t quite enough.
Williams played through back pain that forced her to get treatment and reduced her second serve to 63 mph by the third set. China’s Li Na took advantage, reaching the final of the Western & Southern Open with a 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 victory Saturday night.
All week long, Williams showed she’s learned how to cope with an immune system disease that causes tiredness and sore joints. She made it through three grueling, three-set matches to get to the semis, and was ready for another one.
The bad back was too much. By the end, she was just trying to get her serve over the net. She considered quitting, but decided to keep playing.
“I pretty much couldn’t serve,” she said. “But I wanted to try, especially since this is my first semifinal of the year. I wanted to try to see if I could get to the final. It didn’t work out for me.”
Li is trying for her first title this season. She lost in finals at Sydney, Rome and Montreal, where Petra Kvitova beat her for the Rogers Cup title a week ago.
Kvitova played Angelique Kerber in the other semifinal Saturday night. Kerber ended Serena Williams’ 19-match winning streak a day earlier.
Serena watched from a seat in the stands next to the players’ tunnel while her older sister wore down. At one point in the final set, she yelled: “Break her!” Venus smiled, knowing she was in no shape to do it.
Her semifinal loss aside, it’s been a kick-up-your-heels week for Williams, who faded last year because of injuries and the immune system disorder. She’s on an upswing heading into the U.S. Open, which she had to miss last year because of the disorder.
She won an Olympic gold medal in doubles with her sister at Wimbledon, a moment she called the best of her career. On Cincinnati’s hard courts, she reached her first semifinal of the season by winning one long match after another.
Li had the most challenging time of the women this week in Cincinnati. She had the last match on Thursday night, and it got postponed by rain. She ended up playing two matches a few hours apart on Friday, winning both of them to reach the semifinals.
Li beat Johanna Larsson 6-2, 6-2 in the opener on Friday morning. She took the court less than seven hours later and beat top-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska, who had a sore shoulder.
On Saturday, Williams was the one struggling. She said the back started to bother her during warm-ups and got worse as the match went along.
“Right now, I don’t know why my back hurts,” she said. “I just know it hurts. After this, I’m going to get an evaluation and see what exactly is happening.”
Li noticed the speed on Williams’ serve diminishing.