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Chinese First: Li Na Clutches French Open Title

From the outset, this year’s French Open title was up for grabs. Still, a final featuring world number five and defending champion Francesca Schiavone and world number six Li Na was a surprise. Today, Li defeated Schiavone 6-4,7-6 to become the first Chinese player to capture a major.

With a combined age of over sixty, this was the most mature major women’s final since Wimbledon 1998 whereby Jana Novotna prevailed over Nathalie Tauziat. At 30 years of age, in her first final since her title at Roland Garros, Schiavone was hoping to end her trophy drought by successfully repeating.

Since becoming the first Chinese individual to reach a major final, Li fell off the radar. After the Australian Open, the 29 year old failed to advance beyond the second round at any hardcourt event. Ultimately, the clay proved therapeutic with two semifinal showings by Li in Madrid and Rome.

After each woman held her initial two games, with a backhand volley winner, Li had double break point. With Schiavone’s forehand up the line sailing wide, Li pocketed the break. By consolidating with a love game, Li moved ahead 4-2.

With Schiavone unable to fabricate a break point, the one game difference was all Li required to seize the first set.

There was a serenity about Li which was absent in her first major final. Li had clearly learned from her loss to Kim Clijsters in Melbourne. With sizzling forehands, Li had double digit winners in the first set.

Furthermore, early on, it was conspicuous that Schiavone’s use of spin, slice, volley and overall variety were not throwing Li off balance. Instead, it was the Italian who was finding herself on her back heel.

With an error by Schiavone placing her in a triple break hole to open the second set, Li capitalized when the Italian dumped a forehand into the net.

However, with a great backhand volley winner, Schiavone manufactured her first break point of the match. Li came up with an ace to wipe out that opportunity and eventually took the game for a 2-0 lead.

In front 3-1, Li pushed an easy forehand into the net on break point erasing the chance to go up 4-1, a double break. In the end, Schiavone guarded serve.

With Schiavone serving at 2-4, Li again found herself at break point. But, for the second straight time, Schiavone did not relent and kept the gap to a single break.

With Li committing a rash of forehand miscues, Schiavone arrived at double break point. When Li’s fourth forehand of the game missed its mark, Schiavone had life at 4 all. By holding serve twice, Schiavone edged forward 6-5.

As Li served to push the second set to a tiebreaker, at deuce, a ball initially called out was correctly overturned by the umpire. Therefore, in lieu of Schiavone having set point, it was game point for Li. Unable to shake off that disappointment, Schiavone misfired on the next stroke.

The first point of the tiebreaker, Li obtained a mini-break by striking a sublime lob and volley. After sprinting to a 3-0 advantage, Li produced a beautiful backhand winner for 4-0 and took six successive points to get to championship point.

On her maiden opportunity at match point, Li watched Schiavone’s backhand travel long. She then laid down on the clay in triumph.

Schiavone acknowledged that “today it was really tough”. Moreover, the Italian congratulated Li on her wonderful win saying “[you’ve] grown up so much in the last year”. Having been in Li’s shoes’ last year, Schiavone told her “enjoy this moment” knowing that it is rare.

Schiavone has many fond memories to treasure the past two years and she expressed her gratitude: “thanks to this fantastic tournament. . . It’s a joy to kiss the clay every day. . . Many thanks for supporting me”.

Li wished her opponent the best for the remainder of the season. She dedicated the victory to a friend who was celebrating her birthday. In addition, Li thanked the crowd “for supporting me. I’ll be back next year”.

Indeed Li had an unbelievable two weeks. Every time she stepped on the court it was potentially historic. Li became the first Chinese player to reach the quarterfinals and semifinals at the French Open.

Li ousted three favorites to get to the final: Petra Kvitova in the fourth round, Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals and Maria Sharapova in the semifinals. Li will leap to a career and country best ranking of number four while Schiavone will move down to number 7.

Despite exiting in the third round, Caroline Wozniacki will stay at number one. In spite of a second round departure, Clijsters will keep her number two ranking and Vera Zvonareva who went out in the fourth round is secure at number three.

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