Li Na: Asia's First Ever Grand Slam Champion
Published June 04, 2011 12:00
PARIS, France - Four months ago she became the first Asian player ever to reach a Grand Slam final; in her very next opportunity she went one better. 29-year-old Li Na of China won her continent's first ever Grand Slam title Saturday, beating defending champion Francesca Schiavone in a tight final, 64 76(0).
Round after round Li overcame the odds in Paris. Although she was the No.6 seed she went into several matches as the underdog, in the fourth round against Petra Kvitova, the quarterfinals against Victoria Azarenka and the semifinals against Maria Sharapova. She took them all out in straight sets, and the final with No.5 seed Schiavone was set on a sunny day on Court Philippe Chatrier.
In a rematch of their third round duel from the year before, which Schiavone won in straight sets, Li came out looking sharper, blasting her big groundstrokes to perfection and drawing first blood with a break of serve in the fifth game. She went on to win that set in 39 minutes when a Schiavone forehand sailed long.
Riding the momentum from the first set Li came out firing again in the second set, breaking in the very first game and building leads of 2-0, 3-1 (with a point for 4-1) and 4-2 (with a point for 5-2). But it wasn't over as Schiavone kept fighting to hang onto her beloved title, just like she had in the quarterfinals, where she came from 61 41 down to beat 19-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Schiavone closed in on Li in the second set, taking three straight games to go up 5-4, and eventually pushing it to a tie-break; but the Chinese rediscovered the range on her big ground game and a few untimely Schiavone errors made for a dramatic shift in momentum: Li won the breaker at love to win her first major.
"Francesca is a clay court player - she hits topspin and slice so well, so I just tried to play my tennis and keep her running," Li said. "She's a top player so you never know what will happen and when she will come back in the match, but when we went into the tie-break I told myself it was my chance to do it.
"Before this tournament, people said I couldn't do well on clay courts," the Chinese trailblazer added. "Now I think they will change their minds."
Although countrywomen Sun Tiantian, Yan Zi and Zheng Jie had won major titles in women's doubles and mixed doubles before, Li is the first Chinese - and Asian - player ever, male or female, to win a major in singles. There's another Asian record in this as well - she will now rise to No.4 in the world, equalling Japan's Kimiko Date-Krumm's mark for highest-ranked Asian in WTA history.
Li is the fifth-oldest first-time Grand Slam champion in the Open Era (Schiavone is the second-oldest from her win here last year). The combined age of 60 years and 79 days made this final the fifth-oldest Grand Slam final in the Open Era.
Schiavone, who had a magical run to her first major here in 2010, extended her winning streak at the event to 13 straight matches with her run to the final. The Italian, who turns 31 in a few weeks, was hoping to become the first 30-something to win a major since Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon in 1990.
"Today was really tough but I have to say congratulations to Li Na," Schiavone said. "She has grown so much this year and played so well today. I hope she enjoys this moment because it's fantastic. I had my chances and was playing much better in the second set, but she really deserved to win today."
Like Li had done in the trophy presentation, Schiavone confirmed her plans for next year's Roland Garros fortnight. "For me to kiss the clay every day is something that comes from my heart. I will remember these two weeks and am thankful for everyone's support, as always. I will be back next year."