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China's Li Na makes history with victory in French Open women's final

Li, 29, defeats defending champion Francesca Schiavone, 6-4, 7-6 (0), to become the first Asian-born player to win a singles title at a Grand Slam event.

June 05, 2011|By Henry Chu
  • Li Na reaches for a backhand return during her victory over Francesca Schiavone in the French Open women's final on Saturday at Roland Garros in Paris.
Li Na reaches for a backhand return during her victory over Francesca Schiavone… (Christophe Karaba / EPA )

Reporting from Paris — Her opponent was the defending champion whose childhood dream had always been to win the French Open.

She was the underdog who never saw the tournament on TV as a girl in China and never thought she'd get far on the red clay of Roland Garros.

But it was Li Na who fell on her back in triumph Saturday when Francesca Schiavone's final ball floated out. Nearly two hours of heavy hitting gave Li a 6-4, 7-6 (0) victory and made her the only tennis player, man or woman, from Asia to take home a Grand Slam title.

No one, not even Li, had expected it. Only a few days ago, she confessed to hating chasing down balls on the slow, sun-baked terre battue, preferring just "to stand there" while playing.

But she overcame her aversion in spectacular fashion, showing impressive footwork as she sprinted to retrieve shots, often thwacking the ball back into the corners on the other side. Schiavone, no slouch on court, could only watch many of them whiz by.

"She played really deep," Schiavone said. "Everything was going really close to the baseline."

Last year, Schiavone was the one who made history, becoming the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam event. She defeated Li handily in the third round and subdued another hard-hitting player, Samantha Stosur, in the final through wile and guile, mixing up her spins, charging the net and keeping her opponent from getting into a groove.

But she couldn't pursue that strategy so well Saturday, with Li's penetrating groundstrokes, especially her forehand, dictating the pace and often kissing the lines. Li ripped 31 winners to Schiavone's 12.

They were two veterans slugging it out, savoring the chance for glory late in their careers, in an arena where teenage girls have often hoisted the trophy at the end. The combined ages of Li, 29, and Schiavone, 31 in a couple of weeks, made it one of the "oldest" women's French Open finals on the books.

(Roger Federer, 29, will fly the banner for the aged set when he faces five-time champion Rafael Nadal in Sunday's men's final.)

Li, runner-up at the Australian Open in January, played with great authority from the start, yanking her opponent from side to side and never giving Schiavone a chance to break her serve during the first set. She broke Schiavone's serve in the fifth game, setting up two break points by hustling to the net to bat back a drop shot, then putting away a backhand winner.

Schiavone, big-hearted and emotional, rallied in the second set after being broken straightaway.

Under sunny skies, in near-windless conditions, she finally started to spice her play with some of the cleverness she'd used to such great effect last year — a drop volley here, a deadening slice there — while Li began, perhaps, to sense the momentousness of the occasion.

"Of course was nervous. I mean, come to the final and so many people watching you," Li said.

The crowd roared when Schiavone clawed her way back to 4-4. A wobbly Li struggled to hold her next two service games, which included a disputed call on a ball she struck at deuce in the 12th game that a sideline judge ruled out.

That would've handed Schiavone a set point. But as fans in the stands whooped and jeered, the umpire inspected the mark on the rust-colored clay, overruled the call and awarded the point to Li.

Afterward, Schiavone implied that the point had been stolen from her. She declined to blame the outcome of the match on it, though she didn't win a single point thereafter.

"One ball can't make the difference so much, but in that moment, you have to check really good the ball," she said. "That's what I contest."

The tiebreaker belonged entirely to Li. On the strength of a swinging backhand volley winner and a magnificent running cross-court forehand passing shot, she raced to a 6-0 lead for six match points ("I was thinking about, OK, don't do stupid thing"), and on the first, when Schiavone's shot went long, the longshot from central China was lying in the dirt.

"I thought I could win [a Grand Slam title], but I never thought it would be on red clay," said Li, who will rise to No. 4 in the rankings.

Her victory could have a galvanizing effect in her homeland, where an estimated 65 million people watched her semifinal match on TV — more than the entire population of Italy.

Certainly, Li's sponsor, Nike China, needs to revisit its hasty decision, just before the French Open, to print up T-shirts only for Li's team to wear at the tournament, stamped with the motto "Be yourself" in Chinese characters.

"They only make the T-shirt for — 30 T-shirt [for] all of the China," Li said, laughing. "I think now they should make more of it."

henry.chu@latimes.com

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