Li wins French Open for China's 1st Slam title
Distracted, Li stopped and let the ball drop. The words of support were in Mandarin: "Jia you!" — which loosely translates to "Let's go!" After so many years of "Come on" and "Allez" and "Vamos," there's a new language on the tennis landscape.
Li became the first Chinese player, man or woman, to win a Grand Slam singles title by beating defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy 6-4, 7-6 (0) at Roland Garros on Saturday. The sixth-seeded Li used powerful groundstrokes to compile a 31-12 edge in winners, and won the last nine points of the match, a run that began when the fifth-seeded Schiavone was flustered by a line call she was sure was wrong.
"China tennis — we're getting bigger and bigger," said Li, who is projected to rise to a career-best No. 4 in Monday's new WTA rankings.
She already was the first woman from that nation of more than 1 billion people to win a WTA singles title, the first to enter the top 10 in the rankings, and the first to make it to a Grand Slam final — she lost to Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open in January.
Thinking back to that defeat, Li said: "I had no experience. I was very nervous. For my second time in a final, I had the experience. I knew how to do it. And I had more self-confidence."
Tennis is considered an elite sport in China, and while participation is rapidly increasing, it still trails basketball, soccer and table tennis, among others. But Li's victory was big news back home, where the match finished shortly after 11 p.m. local time on a holiday weekend.
State broadcaster CCTV posted the banner, "We love you Li Na," on their gushing coverage, and announcer Tong Kexin pronounced: "This has left a really deep impression on the world." People at the Green Bank Tennis Club on Beijing's northern edge gathered to eat barbecued food, drink beer and watch the events from Paris on a big-screen TV set up on a court. Some waved Chinese flags during the postmatch trophy ceremony.
Li broke away from the Chinese government's sports system in late 2008 under an experimental reform policy for tennis players dubbed "Fly Alone." Li was given the freedom to choose her own coach and schedule and to keep much more of her earnings: Previously, she turned over 65 percent to the authorities; now it's 12 percent. That comes to about $205,000 of the $1.7 million French Open winner's check.
"We took a lot of risks with this reform. When we let them fly, we didn't know if they would succeed. That they have now succeeded, means our reform was correct," said Sun Jinfang, an official with the Chinese Tennis Association. "This reform will serve as a good example for reforms in other sports."
At her news conference, Li wore a new T-shirt with Chinese characters that mean "sport changes everything," and offered thanks to Sun.
"Without her reform, then possibly we wouldn't have achieved this success," Li said.
When a reporter mentioned the June 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and asked whether her victory could spark a sports revolution, Li said she's "just" a tennis player and added, "I don't need to answer ... this question."
Her tennis game, filled with flat forehands and backhands, looks better-built for hard courts, rather than the slow, red clay of Paris. Indeed, Li never had won a clay-court tournament until Saturday. She lost in the third round in three of her previous four French Opens, including against Schiavone a year ago.
But Li's movement on clay is better now, Schiavone explained, saying: "She slides a little bit more."
Li repeatedly set up points with her backhand, then closed them with her forehand, and she finished with 21 winners from the baseline, 15 more than Schiavone. Only after Li controlled the first set and the early part of the second did Schiavone begin working her way into the match.
"I tried to push more, to risk more," Schiavone said.
She broke to 4-all in the second, and held to lead 6-5. The 12th game was pivotal.
Serving at deuce, Li smacked a backhand that landed near a sideline but initially was called out by a line judge, which would have given Schiavone a set point. But Li began walking up to take a closer look at the mark left in the clay by the shot, and chair umpire Louise Engzell climbed down to examine it, too. She told Schiavone the ball touched the line. Schiavone leaned forward and pointed at the spot in question, discussing the ruling with Engzell; the restless crowd began whistling and jeering, as French Open spectators often do when a player vigorously questions a call. Engzell's call stood, and eventually she returned to her perch.
Schiavone wouldn't win another point.
"That ball was out," she said later. "Sure, you get angry. ... So what do you do? You're playing tennis, you have to go back to playing tennis and think about what you need to do. Obviously, I think it was a big mistake. But it's up to the tournament and others to watch that match again and evaluate the call."
Li is 29, and Schiavone turns 31 later this month, making for the oldest combined ages of French Open women's finalists since 1986. Perhaps that's why neither appeared to be too shaken by the stakes or the setting — until the latter stages.
"The young people, they just play 100 percent all the time. (Li and Schiavone) are more selective. They know when to play the big points and not use too much energy when it's not really necessary," said Li's coach, Michael Mortensen. "They use their brains more than the young ones are doing."
Serving while ahead 4-2, Li missed four forehands in one game to get broken for the only time all match. Schiavone, as demonstrative an athlete as there is, leaned over, punched the air and shouted, while the vocal support group in her guest box launched into one of its many songs saluting her in Italian.
Schiavone then held for a 5-4 lead. In the next game, she moved within two points of tying the match at a set apiece by hitting a backhand return that skipped off the baseline oddly, producing a swing-and-miss whiff by Li. All told, there were five times when Schiavone was two points from winning the second set — but she never got closer than that.
The fifth time came on that call she didn't like. Schiavone put a backhand into the net on the next point to make it 6-all. In the tiebreaker, two of Li's points came on volley winners, and one from a passing shot she hit that Schiavone volleyed into the net. The other four tiebreaker points ended with return or groundstroke miscues by the Italian.
When Schiavone's backhand sailed long on match point, Li fell to the court, covering the back of her white shirt with rust-colored clay.
Schiavone was the fourth consecutive top-10 seeded player that Li beat, including three-time major champion Maria Sharapova in the semifinals.
There's nothing subtle about Li's style of play: Essentially, she pounds the ball hard, pushing opponents back near the baseline, and hopes to outswing them. Li never let Schiavone get comfortable, never let her employ the all-court, net-rushing strategy that worked so well for what had been 13 consecutive victories at Roland Garros.
In 2010, Schiavone became Italy's first female Grand Slam champion. This time, it was Li who bit her lower lip when accepting the tournament trophy, and who mouthed the words while China's national anthem was played and its flag was raised at the stadium for the first time. Chinese players had won three women's or mixed doubles Grand Slam titles in the past. But none at the French Open. And none in singles.
"Amazing," Li said. "I got a text message from my friend. They said they were crying in China because they saw the national flag."