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Steve Flink: Li Na Makes History

6/4/2011 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

PARIS--Not long after Li Na had made history of a high order by ousting defending champion Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6 (0) in the Roland Garros final to become the first Chinese player—male or female—ever to capture a Grand Slam championship, she was greeted during the presentation ceremony by 1971 French Open victor Evonne Goolagong Cawley. As Goolagong exchanged a few words and congratulated the new champion, I was reminded of my first trip to the French Open for that memorable 1971 event. Goolagong had secured her first of seven career major championships with a victory over countrywoman Helen Gourlay, and I was seated across the aisle from the congenial Australian on a flight later that night.

When we landed in London, I noticed Goolagong leaving the plane, but she had forgotten to grab her stack of Dunlop rackets with their distinctive red covers. They were still in the overhead bin, so I grabbed them and caught up with Goolagong at the baggage claim. She laughed when she realized how absent minded she had been, and thanked me for bailing her out. Over the years, I always enjoyed watching her play with that elegant style and golden backhand, but I appreciated her bright personality and essential ease with people just as much.

Looking at Li Na now, I get the feeling that at her core she is the same kind of person as Goolagong Cawley: earnest, good natured, and never willing to take herself too seriously. But she is beginning to realize that hard work, good craftsmanship and a strong will to win can carry a player like her a long way. Li now understands that she can compete with the best players in the world on any surface, and that there is no need to live in a state of apprehension when she plays at the game’s biggest events. Above all else, Li Na realizes that she belongs in the upper reaches of the game, and I am certain she can replicate her feat here in Paris and go on to record more victories at the majors in the years ahead—perhaps even later this year.

Back in late January, Li lost to Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open final after rescuing herself from match point down in the semifinals against world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. The Chinese player took the first set from Clijsters, and seemed on her way to a landmark victory in Melbourne. But her nerves kicked in, Clijsters stepped up, and an opportunity disappeared. Perhaps the setback at the Australian Open sent Li into a tailspin. In her next four tournaments, she did not win a match on hard courts. Shifting to clay, her form improved, and Li made it to the semifinals of both Madrid and Rome. But few learned observers expected her to play as well as did across the last fortnight in Paris.

She survived an arduous three set, opening round assignment with Barbara Zahlavova Strycova, took her next two matches in straight sets, and then avenged a loss to the dangerous left-hander Petra Kvitova in Madrid, defeating the No. 9 seed 2-6, 6-1, 6-3 in the round of 16. Next, Li upended No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-2, and she followed up by knocking out No. 7 seed Maria Sharapova 6-4, 7-5 in the semifinals.

And yet, Schiavone stood in her way, and winning the final was never going to be a facile task. The No. 5 seed was gathering confidence heading into the final, and she had already demonstrated that she had what it takes to win the world’s premier clay court tournament. The pressure was entirely on the sixth seeded Li Na today because she had yet to come through at a major, and the last thing she needed was to lose two Grand Slam tournament finals in a row. But no matter how nervous Li may have been in the hours leading up to this crucial appointment, she seemed very composed from the outset, and it was impressive to watch her go about her business with such self assurance.

From the beginning, Li was striking the ball beautifully, refusing to allow Schiavone the time she needed to turn the match into more of a tactical battle. In the opening game of the match, Li advanced to break point with one of her patented flat forehand winners, but she went for another big shot off that side and missed. Schiavone held on for 1-0, but the evidence was there that Li was going to make her presence known and not back off from her big hitting game plan. Li kept pounding away with her flat ground strokes, looking for chances to connect with forehand winners, keeping Schiavone off balance and largely unable to assert her authority.

At 2-2, the 29-year-old from China made her move. With Schiavone serving at 15-30 in that fifth game of the opening set, Li chased down a drop shot and sent a forehand deep crosscourt, forcing Schiavone to hit a ball barely over the net. Li stepped in from close range and drilled a backhand winner crosscourt. Now up a break at 3-2, Li pressed her advantage, holding at love with a barrage of penetrating ground strokes to make it 4-2 in her favor. Schiavone took advantage of some errant returns from her opponent to hold at love in the seventh game, but Li was concentrated and disciplined on serve, controlling the points consistently with her terrific forehand.

Li held at love for 5-3, closing out that game with an ace down the T. Schiavone held on in the ninth game, and so Li had to serve the set out at 5-4. At 30-30 in that vital tenth game, Li released a remarkable forehand winner crosscourt off a reasonably deep return down the middle from a determined Schiavone. That was a clear sign that she was sure of herself. At set point, Li stayed in command, and Schiavone drove a forehand long. Li had the set, and that seemed to give her some added inner conviction. In the opening game of the second set, Schiavone fought off two break points, but Li came through on the third by provoking an error from the Italian off the forehand.

Schiavone was trying to do everything she could to break up the methodical rhythm of Li, but very little was working. The Italian was rolling the ball high with heavy topspin, keeping some shots low with the backhand slice, and sneaking up to the net whenever possible. But she still had her work cut out for her. Nevertheless, she did manage to make a beautiful backhand approach volley down the line that set up an angled backhand drop volley winner. That little gem took Schiavone to break point, but a resolute Li wiped that chance away with an ace down the T, and went on to hold for 2-0.Li was backing up her serve with conviction off the ground, and she moved swiftly to 3-1. She had a break point in the fifth game to make it 4-1, but Schiavone fortunately survived that moment when Li missed a relatively easy forehand. The Italian held on for 2-3, but Li Na got to 4-2 by holding with a well struck backhand winner down the line after Schiavone tried to hurt her with an inside-out forehand. Li was closing in on the title, and both players knew it.

Serving at 2-4, Schiavone was dangerously near the brink of defeat again, but somehow escaped. At break point down in that seventh game, the Italian was the beneficiary of an errant backhand return from Li, and she eventually held on with a forehand swing volley into the clear. Schiavone at last gave herself a chance to turn the match in her direction. She broke back at 15 for 4-4, closing out that critical game with an aggressive forehand crosscourt forcing Li into a running forehand mistake. Schiavone was on the upswing. At 4-4, 40-30, she was planning to serve-and-volley behind a kick serve, but recognized that Li’s return was going long.

Li could not afford to allow the Italian back to one set all. Serving at 4-5, she fell behind 15-30, but cracked a two-hander down the line to force an error, and then displayed her gumption by connecting for a forehand winner crosscourt. Schiavone got back to deuce, standing two points away from a third and final set for the third time. But the 30-year-old Italian made an unforced error off the backhand, and then was off target with a forehand return. An unwavering Li was back to 5-5. But her difficulties were not over. At 5-6, Li was at 30-30, but Schiavone missed a topspin backhand return long. The score soon went to deuce, and Schiavone thought she had advanced to set point when Li hit an inside-out backhand that looked like it could be wide. But the umpire checked the mark and ruled that the ball was in. Relieved by that call going her way, Li took the next point to reach a tie-break.

There was never any doubt in that sequence. On the first point, Li took the net away from Schiavone after the Italian had drawn her forward with a drop volley, and closed out that point in style. Schiavone was in disarray, making a forehand unforced error, then driving a backhand return wide. Li then came through with a backhand drive volley winner for 4-0, and glided to victory from there without the loss of a point. She had survived a crisis of sorts late in the second set, and had regrouped boldly to close out a well deserved straight set victory.

The WTA projects that Li will move to No. 4 in the world on Monday, and considering her showings in Melbourne and here in Paris, that would be right where she belongs. Li Na has moved to an entirely new and higher level at 29, and she has an awful lot of first rate tennis ahead of her. The cornerstone of her game is undoubtedly the forehand, but her two-handed backhand is improving, her first serve is more of a weapon, and she has the capacity to add more elements to her game that would make her even more formidable.

It was great fun watching her make such significant history today, and I am looking forward to following her progress at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and finding out how successfully the one and only Li Na will finish an already outstanding 2011 Grand Slam tournament campaign.

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