China Wins French Open
June 4, 2011 -- Li Na promised herself. She wasn't going to fade, let up, or let down. Her inspiration? Her loss at this year's Australian Open.
She kept her promise in Paris today becoming the first Chinese woman, or man, to win a Grand Slam singles title.
She played with intention and aplomb. And for a woman who readily admitted red clay was as foreign a surface as moon dust might be, her movement on Saturday out-ranked that of her opponent, the consummate Italian clay courter and defending champion Francesca Schiavone.
"I like clay court a lot now," Li told Mary Carillo, after the Chinese star had been awarded the Coupe de Suzanne Lenglen.
The last final for Schiavone had been the 2010 French Open final. She prepared the entire year for her run to the finals at Court Philippe Chatrier. She had never passed the fourth round before that victory.
"When I come here, I feel something special, that's all," she said, as reported by Christopher Clarey of The New York Times.
Her special brand of clay court tennis wasn't enough, though. Li nullified Schiavone's variety until late in the second set.
Li served to hold on to her break at 4-3, but nerves seemed to rattle her. Schiavone's artistry painted a brighter scene for the Italian. She ran to the net, slid, and dinked a drop volley winner. Fans went crazy; her Italian contingency more spirited than the rest. Those rose in unison, revealing the slogan of this year's of tee-shirt: 'Schiavo Another Show.'
The length of their shots became a barometer of who held control of the match. Initially Li lead with shots that rocked the Italian backward and handcuffed her style. She couldn't get to the net. She, instead, was left to defend.
"She kept me far away from the net," Schiavone said. "When I was more aggressive, she played shorter."
However after Schiavone halted Li's attempt to go up 5-2, the Italian's strokes lengthened. As the shot length wavered, so did their moods. Schiavone's lifted and Li's darkened. Her unforced errors spiked. She had to remember her promise. Don't give away the control.
Schiavone played her tennis -- the whippy forehands, slice backhands; she made her way to the net and finished points there, in her familiar territory. She denied Li the break late in the set, too, silently emitting her thoughts through facial gestures: not on my turf.
The tiebreaker finish was fitting. A risky first-to-seven by two. No player likes these, really. Their rhythm is rocked. Their serve becomes way important, much more so than in a regular set. It has to be steady, consistent.
Fans witnessed the final step in the metamorphosis, during this tiebreak. The clay-court brilliance intrinsic to Schiavone's game opaquely traveled across the net to Li Na. Schiavone didn't pursue her tennis with more verve, but Li did. She had wrested control. She had transformed into a virtuoso, winning the breaker at zero.
At 6-0 Li Na thought, "Okay, don't do a stupid thing," she told the press afterward. She had believed in herself. Her new coach had helped her believe. Her first French Open singles champion title was hers: 64 76(0).
Michael Mortenson, the Danish Fed Cup Captain, has been with Li since Madrid where she made the semifinals. Their coaching arrangement has been on trial basis these last two weeks. Seems like a contract might be in the offing. Mortenson met Li Na and her husband through Petra Wozniacki, father/coach of world #1 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.
The Chinese Ambassador to France was on hand today, plus hundreds of Chinese fans. News reports projected 28 million might watch Li's match on CCTV -- Chinese TV. With the population of China at 1.3 billion, according to the World Bank, World Development Indicators, the country better begin big plans for court construction, one being red clay in honor of their inspirational hero.
"I will go back to China after Wimbledon," Li said, as tweeted by Doug Robson of USA Today. "If I don't do well in Wimbledon, maybe people will forget me already."
On Monday, Li Na will rise to #4 on the WTA tour rankings. This equals the best ranking by any other Asian player, which is also shared with Japan's Kimiko Date-Krumm.
One statistic these women might not want broadcast, but speaks to their athleticism and commitment to tennis, is their combined age: 60 years and 326 days. It is the highest combined age of any two finalists since Jana Novotna and Frenchwoman Nathalie Tauziat played the Wimbledon final in 1998.