Welcome to French Open Flashbacks, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable narratives from Roland Garros over the past 20 years. After recapping Charleston's classics, Stuttgart's standards, Madrid’s magic moments, and Rome's records, our retrospective heads to the culmination of the clay season in Paris - up next is Li Na's historic victory at the 2011 French Open.
For more classic moments, check out our other French Open Flashbacks:
1999: Graf wins 22nd and final Grand Slam title
2000: Pierce fulfills destiny, rings in millennium with Roland Garros double
2001: Capriati confirms comeback with brave battle in record-setting final
2003: Henin fulfils lofty goals with first of four Roland Garros crowns
2014: Halep serves notice in run to first final in Paris
2016: Mladenovic, Garcia delight home fans with fairytale triumph in Paris
2017: Ostapenko powers to Roland Garros title out of left field
THE MOMENT: By 2011, 29-year-old Li Na had spent so long shouldering the pressure and expectation of Chinese tennis fans, that she started to crack jokes about it. Famous for her quick wit in the press room as much as her quick feet on the court, Li’s career was already dotted with historical milestones: she became the first Chinese player to win a WTA title when she lifted the Guangzhou International Women’s Open trophy in 2003, and was the first to break into the WTA Top 10.
But something was missing from her impressive tennis resume: a Grand Slam crown.
“China is a country of 1.3 billion people,” Li said, narrating her 2011 Strong Is Beautiful campaign video. “Yet, we’ve never had a No.1 player, or a Grand Slam [singles] champion. No pressure.”
She came heartbreakingly close in January, narrowly losing out to Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open final after leading by a set, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. Li posted a disappointing 1-5 record in her next tournaments, and when she arrived at Roland Garros - not exactly on Li’s favorite surface - she was seeded No.6 and going under the radar.
That didn’t last for long as the tournament unfolded, and although Li had never won a clay court title she put together a statement run to the Roland Garros final: in the fourth round, she took down a rising Petra Kvitova - a month before the Czech became a Wimbledon champion - winning 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, in the quarterfinals, she defeated No.4 seed Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-2, and backed it up with a victory over No.7 seed Maria Sharapova, 6-4, 7-5 in the semifinals.
Awaiting in the final was an even bigger test in the form of defending champion Francesca Schiavone, whose skill on clay and all-court game made her the favorite.
Li’s game of flat forehands and backhands was always most effective on hardcourts, but against Schiavone the Chinese player dictated play, and finished with 21 winners from the baseline, 15 more than Schiavone. The Italian player finally worked her way back into the match after dropping the first set, 6-4, and broke to take the lead at 4-4 in the second. Li edged back to send them into a tiebreak, and won the next seven points in a row before falling to the ground in elation.
After years of fans chanting “allez”, “vamos” and “come on”, Court Philippe Chatrier now heard cries of “jiayou” as Li became the first player from Asia to lift a Grand Slam trophy.
THE MEANING: A record 116 million viewers from China tuned in to watch Li become the French Open champion, the start of a women’s tennis boom in a country normally left out of the tennis conversation.
“It’s amazing," Li told press after the win. "I got a text message from my friend. They said they were crying in China because they saw the national flag."
Li herself went on to add another Grand Slam title to her name in 2014, winning Australian Open title and reaching as high as WTA World No.2. But as chronic injuries took their toll, she retired at the end of 2014 with a career haul of 11 titles in singles and doubles.
But her impact stretched far beyond the tennis court: when Li turned pro in 1999, the WTA didn’t have any tournaments in China, and only six total in Asia - half of those in Japan. As Li’s victories made her a megastar back home and brought tennis to the forefront, China now hosts more WTA tournaments than any other country - including a Premier 5 in Li’s hometown Wuhan, as well as the biggest of all: the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, which last year offered record-breaking prize money for the winner.
“Li is the most influential player this decade for the growth of women’s tennis,” said then WTA CEO Stacey Allaster in 2014. Even Time Magazine agreed, having put Li on their list of 100 Most Influential People in the World the year before.
Li entered the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2019, enshrining a trailblazing rise to the top of the sport that galvanized a nation and changed the landscape of women’s tennis forever - and it all started at Roland Garros.