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Li Na Dethrones Schiavone at French Open

Jun 4, 2011

Which woman had the weight of China on her shoulders? It was not easy to tell in this French Open final, not with Francesca Schiavone looking edgier and misfiring more often than Li Na.

But Li, not Schiavone, was the veteran trying to become the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title, and though that might have been too much to bear for a less strong-minded woman, Li handled the occasion, on the whole, with remarkable poise.

After losing in her first Grand Slam final at this year's Australian Open, Li drew on that experience and kept her temper and baseline power under control and, in the end, the only thing she lost command of washer balance. After Schiavone's final one-handed backhand had landed long, Li fell to the clay on her back, dropped her racket and covered her eyes with both hands.

"Of course I was nervous, but I didn't want to show opponent," Li said after her 6-4, 7-6 (0) victory.
China is clearly no longer a future tennis power. Li and her compatriot Zheng Jie wereonce considered a platform generation: capable of laying the foundation for the next generation of singles champions to come. But Li ended up becoming that champion herself at an age - 29 - when many a modernplayer has long since peaked.

But then such breakthroughs are fast becoming the rule at Roland Garros. Schiavone won her first Grand Slam title herelast year when she, too, was 29.

"This year she grow up so much, and she played today really well," Schiavone said of Li in her postmatch remarks to the crowd.
She then turned to Li and said, "Enjoy this moment; it's fantastic."

Schiavone made some history of her own last year, becoming the first Italian woman towin a Grand Slam singles title. But China, the world's most populous nation, carries a symbolic and demographic weight all its own.

Chinese women have won Grand Slam doubles titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, but singles is where the prestigeresides in the modern game. And though tennis is not yet a sport for the masses in China, a mass audience there watched her victory: it was shortly after 11 p.m. in China when she won.

Li, who is also the first person from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title, was a legitimate underdog in this final. Clay, at leastuntil now, was her least favorite surface, andit has long been the surface on which Schiavone can best express her range of shots and talents. Until this year, Li had neverbeen past the fourth round at Roland Garros,but there is a dearth of proven talent at the top of the women's game for the moment.

Serena Williams has not played in nearly a year because of health problems. Her sister Venus Williams has not played since January because of an injury.

Justine Henin, the Belgian star who was the finest clay court player of this generation, retired this year because of a major elbow injury, and Kim Clijsters, who beat Li in the Australian Open and likes clay, was unable to play any preliminary tournaments on clay after being injured in a freakish accident while dancing at a wedding. (Clijsters was defeated here in the second round.)

To her credit, Li has taken advantage of the instability, and though she struggled with her game and results after the Australian Open, she recovered her form in time for Roland Garros with the help of her new coach, Michael Mortensen, a Dane who has refined some of her technique and, above all,pushed the concept of keeping tennis in perspective.