Li Na Dethrones Schiavone at French Open
Published: June 4, 2011
PARIS — Which woman had the weight of China on her shoulders? It was easy to get confused on Saturday with Francesca Schiavone more on edge and off target than Li Na for much of the French Open final.
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But Li, not Schiavone, was the long-aspiring veteran trying to become the first player from her country to win a Grand Slam singles title. And though that prospect could have been too much to bear, Li handled the occasion — a few shouts and dark looks excepted — with remarkable and unexpected poise.
After losing her first Grand Slam final at this year’s Australian Open, Li drew on that experience and kept her temper and baseline power under control. In the end, the only thing she lost complete command of was her balance.
After Schiavone’s final backhand landed long, Li fell to the clay on her back, dropped her racket and covered her eyes with her hands. “Dream come true,” Li said of her 6-4, 7-6 (0) victory. “In China, never have champion for the Grand Slam, so that’s why in China, so many players working so hard.”
But China is clearly no longer a future tennis power. Li and her compatriot Zheng Jie were once considered a platform generation capable of laying the groundwork for the singles champions to come. Instead, Li, a former badminton player with a sharp wit from Wuhan who once quit tennis for two years to attend college, ended up becoming that champion herself at an age — 29 — when many modern players have already declined.
At least that was how it used to work. Last year in Paris, Schiavone became the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam title when she, too, was 29. The combined ages of the finalists Saturday made this the most mature women’s Grand Slam final in 13 years.
But that won’t be why it will be remembered. Chinese women have won Grand Slam doubles titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon and at the 2004 Olympics, but singles is where the prestige resides in the contemporary game. Although tennis is not yet a sport for the masses in China and its population of 1.3 billion, a mass audience did see Li’s victory on the state sports channel CCTV-5.
According to the WTA, an estimated 65 million Chinese watched at least part of Li’s semifinal victory over Maria Sharapova. Saturday’s final, which ended shortly before 11 p.m. in China, was expected to draw similar numbers.
“She was already a national hero; she’s just going to go to rock-star status,” said Stacey Allaster, the head of the WTA. “Look at Yao Ming. She’s going to be there.”
That could be a big stretch considering the status of basketball and Yao in China. But Li will always be the first Chinese — and first Asian — to win a major singles title.
She was a legitimate underdog Saturday. Clay, until now, was her least favorite surface, and she had never won so much as a tour event on it, while clay has long been the surface on which Schiavone can best express her range of shots and tactics. But Li had a fine game plan: returning deep to Schiavone’s body to deprive her of time to prepare and keeping her off balance by attacking her effectively on the forehand side.
Li finished with 31 winners to Schiavone’s 12 and served consistently well, putting 76 percent of her first serves into play and winning nearly 70 percent of the points on both her first and second serves. It was all quite a change from last year, when Schiavone beat Li here in straight sets in the third round.
“I think she deserve this final,” said Schiavone, who also struggled to win points at the net.
Li played her first genuinely shaky game to lose her serve at 4-3 in the second set, but the match swung back her way for good at 6-5 when the chair umpire Louise Engzell overruled a line call that would have given Schiavone break point. Schiavone argued to no avail, then won no points the rest of the way. After the match, she remained convinced that Engzell had checked the wrong ball mark, but declined to use the call as an excuse.