Li, the 2011 French Open champ, rallied from down a break in the second set for a 6-2, 7-5 victory.
Li was nervous after she noticed that her draw was a repeat from last year. A pep talk from coach Carlos Rodriguez eased her anxiety.
“After the talk I was feeling much, much better,” she said. “Because before I never try to share the feeling with the team.”
Agnieszka Radwanska needed nearly two hours to slip past No. 32-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4, 7-6 (1). The third-seeded Pole faced 10 break points, but Pavlyuchenkova was able to convert only two, while Radwanska was 3 for 5.
Wimbledon runner-up Sabine Lisicki, seeded 16th, won’t be making a run at Flushing Meadows after she was eliminated in straight sets by Ekaterina Makarova. The 24th-seeded Russian won 6-4, 7-5.
A year ago, Robson’s upset of Li was the biggest victory of her breakthrough run. Meanwhile, it was the third straight frustrating U.S. Open loss for the Chinese star.
Robson was ranked 89th coming into last year’s tournament. She had never advanced past the second round at a Grand Slam event or defeated a top-10 opponent.
That all changed when she upset major champions Kim Clijsters and Li back-to-back to make the fourth round. Now 19, Robson was seeded 30th at Flushing Meadows and coming off a fourth-round run at Wimbledon.
Li had 34 unforced errors in their match a year ago, and she lamented then that the free points lifted the teen’s confidence. This time, Robson never had much of an opening.
“She served very well today and I thought she was returning really deep,” Robson said. “You know, there wasn’t a lot I could do in some points.”
Li surprised herself with 11 aces Friday — including one on a second serve on match point — and won all nine points when she went to the net. She’s back in the fourth round at the U.S. Open for the first time since 2009.