KEY BISCAYNE, FLORIDA – The celebration began with a series of happy hops that propelled Serena Williams across the court. Soon she was twirling, waving, laughing and mugging for the cameras — a familiar ritual by a perennial champion.
Williams won a record seventh Key Biscayne title Saturday when she overcame a slow start and a set point to beat Li Na 7-5, 6-1 at the Sony Open. She surpassed the tournament record of six titles she shared with Andre Agassi.
“I was actually super excited at the end,” Williams said, “because I remember sitting here last year trying to get to six, thinking, ‘OK, obviously I want seven, but I don’t want to put the pressure on myself to get to seven.’ Obviously I wanted to have the most titles here.”
The No. 1-ranked Williams looked tense at the outset and served poorly, and she was broken twice to fall behind 5-2.
“At that moment I felt like I had nothing to lose,” Williams said. “I just was able to relax. Whenever I relax, I enjoy myself.”
Li held a set point serving at 5-4, but Williams erased it with a backhand winner.
Williams needed another 21 minutes to pull out the set. The final game of the set went to deuce six times, but she finally won it with a booming backhand that Li couldn’t handle.
Williams ran to her chair with a satisfied scream, her left fist leading the way. She dominated from there, sweeping the final five games.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion has more titles at Key Biscayne than at any other tournament. She’s the fourth woman in the Open era to win an event at least seven times.
“I think we’re going to have to rename this tournament,” former top-five player Mary Joe Fernandez said during the trophy ceremony.
Both finalists are 32, and they shared lots of smiles while holding their trophies. Li explained: “We were talking about, ‘For sure before the match they say, ‘Oh, two old women.’ “
They’re close in age, but it’s a commentary on the yawning gap between Williams and the rest of the women’s tour that, even while at less than her best, she won in straight sets against the No. 2-ranked player. She made only 44 percent of her first serves and converted just five of 17 break-point chances.
Even so, Williams extended her winning streak against top-10 opponents to 15 matches. She beat Li for the 10th time in a row since 2009.
“When you’re going up against the top players, for me, I have to be ready because they are the best in the world, the whole planet,” Williams said. “I enjoy playing people that are ranked like that, because I feel like I can eventually bring out the best in me.”
The top-ranked men will meet in Sunday’s final, when No. 1 Rafael Nadal tries for his first Key Biscayne title against No. 2 Novak Djokovic, a three-time champion.
No. 1-ranked Mike and Bob Bryan won the men’s doubles title for the first time since 2008 by beating Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah 7-6 (10-8), 6-4.
Williams lives 90 minutes up I-95 from Key Biscayne and considers it her home event. She said the fans provided a boost when she fell behind.
“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, if I can just hang in here and just try to enjoy myself,’ ” she said. “Honestly the crowd pulled me through. I heard some fans go, ‘Go Serena.’ “
Williams has played in the tournament 14 times and also won the final in 2002-04, 2007-08 and 2013. She has celebrated so many titles she couldn’t remember the first one.
“Who was it against?” she said. “Venus?”
Actually, she lost finals to her sister Venus in 1999, and to Victoria Azarenka in 2009. She beat Jennifer Capiati for her first two Key Biscayne titles, and the others came against Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Maria Sharapova.
Li, who won the Australian Open in January, was at the top of her game for most of the first set. Even so, she couldn’t close it out.
“Only one mistake: I think I should go party last night,” Li said with a smile.