Saturday, June 4, 2011

Li's Triumph Solidifies Her Status Among the World's Best

Na Li overcame nerves, an aversion to clay, and the impassioned fury of Francesca Schiavone to become China's first Grand Slam winner.

It's difficult to speculate on what Li Na's French Open title will mean for Chinese tennis, or what it will mean for the state of tennis as a whole, but it's a pretty safe assumption that Li herself will never be the same player again.

How could she be? The trailblazing 29-year-old Wuhan, China native has been on the cusp of a breakthrough for several years, but today's 6-4, 7-6(0) victory over Francesca Schiavone marks her full-fledged emergence as a card-carrying member of the Grand Slam club. That's something that can never be taken away from Li, and as she slid to the clay when Francesca Schiavone's backhand sailed long on match point, one got the feeling that she is going to be a hard woman to stop from this day forward.

Li, who became unraveled after storming to a one set lead in this year's Australian Open final (she eventually lost the match to Kim Clijsters, but was still celebrated as the first Chinese player to ever reach a Grand Slam final), deserves a lot of credit for putting herself in position for another milestone win just a few months later. Li recommitted herself to her game, hired a new coach, and proceeded to reinvent herself as the master of playing hard court tennis to full effect on a clay court.

We didn't know it then, but Li's runner-up finish in Australia would end up being the final lesson for her. With the experience in her back pocket, even though the loss stung, she was closer than she ever had been before.

In her second Grand Slam final Li was much cooler under pressure. When faced with a furious assault from the defending champion in the second set, Li struggled but did not wilt. As momentum shifted to the Italian's side of the court late in the second set, Li didn't get desperate -- she bided her time and limited the damage.

After holding serve to force a 2nd set tiebreak, Li then seized the opportunity, wrestling the crown from a hell-bent Francesca Schiavone by executing brilliantly under pressure and not allowing her opponent a single point.

Belief comes in many packages, but when it comes in the form of a 5'7" dynamo with smooth yet powerful strokes, furiously fast feet and a rousing fighting spirit, then you've got a recipe for making history.

History was what we witnessed today. Li is the first Chinese person to ever win a Grand Slam, but the hope is that she'll be the first of many.

Might Li's blossoming be the first domino to fall in what will later become a full-scale assault on the upper echelons of women's' tennis by the Chinese? Might it even inspire the Chinese men to follow suit?

Rather than spend the day speculating on what it all might mean, now is perhaps a better time to celebrate Li's efforts on an individual level. She came, she saw and she conquered, and she deserves all the accolades that are sure to follow. Similar to Schiavone's improbable rise to glory in 2010, Li concocted a winning amalgamation, woven from elements of courage, fortitude, and most importantly, experience. Just as Schiavone has raised her level to elite status, Li too has undergone a process of maturation that now places her at the pinnacle of the women's game.

So before we get busy wondering about the future of Chinese tennis, of how many players they'll be pumping out and how many courts they'll be building, let's take a moment to pay homage to the fire in Li's heart and the smile on her face. The image of her sliding to her back and getting all caked in red clay was not only for China -- it was a universal moment that symbolized the love of sport just as much as it did the love of country.

And for that, we can all be grateful that we bore witness.


  1. I heard a few years ago, China had 6 mil players, and now has 20 mil, and a lot of that increase is due to Li Na. But you are right, let's celebrate her personal victory and how she overcame her obstacles. I wonder what her new coach did! Such an inspirational story! I'm a fan of both Schiavone and Li and, in the end, the better player won.

  2. Lovely piece Chris. I'm very happy for her. There's a part of me that is sorry that China has banned twitter. I'd have loved to spread the love with them yesterday.


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