One billion strong revel in Li Na's win
PARIS -- Li Na is not a natural slider on clay.
She prefers the stability and pace of hard courts, but this spring she has been working on her sliding, in and out of shots, on Europe's greatest clay courts.
But after 1 hour, 48 minutes, after she took down Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6 (0) in Saturday's French Open women's final, she lost her focus a bit. Stopping abruptly after the Italian's final backhand strayed long, Li dug in her heels and, sticking the landing a little too well, skidded to a stop and hit the dirt. She laid there on her back for a few seconds, covering her face, then jumped up, a Grand Slam champion for the first time.
"I mean, of course [the] feeling today is the dream come true," Li said. "Like I was a young player, I want be the Grand Slam champion, but today someone saying I'm getting old. So, you know, the old woman like the dream come true. Not easy."
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It was the first Grand Slam singles title for Li and the first for the nation of China. But with a population of 1.3 billion (tens of millions of whom were watching on television), it is not likely to be China's last.
Schiavone, whose French Open title a year ago elevated the popularity of tennis in Italy, said she appreciated what Li had accomplished for tennis in China.
"Of course," she said. "I can imagine millions of Chinese people watching tennis. It's important for them to know the clay. They have mostly hard courts there."
Li understands the importance of the win more than anyone.
"I think China tennis, we're going to be good," said Li, who added that she wouldn't be able to return home until after Wimbledon. "Maybe if I don't do well in Wimbledon," she said, laughing, "maybe people forget me already."
Schiavone won 13 straight matches here at Roland Garros, with a marvelous bit of sleight of hand. The fiery Italian blunted the power of her mostly larger opponents and, with a feast of off-speed stuff, ultimately wore them down with a dazzling array of diversity.
"Of course one has to win, one has to lose," Schiavone said in her on-court interview. "I am happy to be here to fight again. In this year, she grew up so much. Enjoy this moment, it was fantastic."
This, Schiavone knows.
But this time, Schiavone could not impose her game on a transcendent Chinese player, an emerging global power to be sure. Pounding serves and baseline winners from both sides, Li bludgeoned the defending champion off the court.
Yes, it was a searing 7-0 in the deciding tiebreaker. In the end, Schiavone was merely defending.
After the suffocating drama of Friday's men's semifinals, this was predictably anticlimactic. For the 10th straight year, the French Open women's final was decided in straight sets.
Li is 29, relatively old for a first-time Slam winner, but she considers that merely a matter of accounting. Truth is she has ever played better, or smarter. Li is another example of the French Open's capacity to give us unlooked-for champions.
Four months ago in the Australian Open final, she won the first set against Kim Clijsters then imploded and lost the match. Against Schiavone, who beat Li here a year ago in the third round, you could see the learning curve advance.
It started with a deep service return that Schiavone couldn't master gave Li a break in the fifth game of the first set. Serving for the set at 30-all, she hit a shot that underlined her power advantage over the Italian. She was already 5 feet behind the baseline and backpedaling when she unleashed a cross-court forehand that found the corner. At 5-foot-7, 143 pounds, Li's program size is only 2 inches and 2 pounds more than Schiavone's, but she managed to get the ball by Schiavone from a compromised position.
Ultimately, Schiavone left too many short balls in the middle of the court -- right in Li's generous strike zone. Li finished the match with 31 winners, compared to just 12 for Schiavone.
In the second set, Schiavone began to wilt. The drop shots that worked a year ago found the net. The over-the-top forehand that hit the line in 2010 sailed long. But she cleaned up an early break and forced her way into a tiebreaker.
The Chinese player won the first point with a sweet forehand volley winner, and Schiavone put herself in an untenable position with two errors, a wide forehand followed by a wide backhand.
"Six-love in the tiebreaker," she said. "[It was] 'OK, don't do the stupid thing.' Of course, [it's] exciting. Only so many players can win the Grand Slam."
Li has never won a clay-court title in her life -- she owns only four of any kind on her résumé -- but she has taken to the Euro clay like a splashing otter in a sparkling stream. After the loss to Clijsters in the final Down Under, she lost her next four matches on hard courts. Then in Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome and now Paris, she has won 15 of 18 matches, sliding like a seasoned dirt-baller.
Li has improved dramatically on clay since that loss to Schiavone a year ago.
"Oh, yeah," Schiavone said. "She ran much more. In particular, when I play really good, now she can arrive [at the ball] and hit one or two more shots. Can make in some points the difference for her."
Afterward, Amelie Mauresmo -- a two-time major champion -- broke down the match as an analyst for EuroSport:
"She was not feeling so good, but she pulled herself together and played a fantastic tiebreaker," Mauresmo said of Li. "It's a great moment. The adrenaline is running through the body. She is probably in the clouds.
"It's one of those moments you cannot describe. You must live it."
Only 38 women have done it in the Open era. In seven matches here, Li Na beat four players ranked among the WTA's top 10. You can't do much better than that.
For Roland Garros, Nike printed t-shirts for the Li team. In English, the Chinese characters translate to: Be Yourself.
"Only 30 t-shirts for all of China," Li said. "Now they should make more. A lot of fans would like to have these shirts."
The revolution in Chinese tennis is now underway. It happened in another racket sport, a little game called ping pong. Don't say you weren't warned.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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