French Open 2011: Inspired Li beats inspirational Schiavone

The top four seeds may have fallen before the French Open semis, but this final was eagerly anticipated

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Champion: Li is the first Chinese woman to win a Grand Slam Photo: Frederic de Villamil via Flickr

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Despite their popularity, there were very few who expected Na Li and Francesca Schiavone to be the last women standing in Paris, even taking into account the absence of the Williams sisters and the presence of an injured Kim Clijsters.

Neither had set the tour alight in recent months, neither conformed to the tall, big-hitting mould of the usual favourites and neither was in the first flush of youth.

Yet both proved they were two of the best movers, the toughest fighters and near the peak of their physical powers. What’s more, their big personalities and charismatic tennis had captured the imagination.

Schiavone won the hearts of tennis fans worldwide with her joy and tennis-craft after winning the title at Roland Garros last year. If that was unexpected, her progress to the final again, at almost 31, was just as popular.

She loves fast cars yet writes of philosophy -a mix as complex as her tennis.

Her game combines that old-fashioned blend of tactics, variety of spin, intelligent shot selection and serve-and-volley guile that made Martina Navratilova the champion she became -and Navratilova, the last woman to win a Slam in her fourth decade, was in attendance for this match.

Li won the hearts of the media and fans during her great run at the Australian Open this year. Her on-court interviews became a not-to-be-missed treat of wit, openness and free-spiritedness that was as fresh as a summer’s day.

And she, too, proffered the rounded personality of a 29-year-old who had taken time out of tennis for a journalism degree and had ploughed her own furrow outside the restrictions of the Chinese tennis regimen to open the way for youngsters to follow.

Her playing style is the opposite of Schiavone’s but just as compelling. It, too, departs from the big top-spin baseline game in favour of an attacking style that takes the ball early, flat and hard with clinical chess-like moves to the court’s perimeter. Appropriate, perhaps, that Martina Hingis was also looking on.

Between them, Li and Schiavone had taken out seven seeds, including several of the favourites for the title: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Jelena Jankovic, Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova amongst them.

And it was Schiavone herself who put her finger on the key to success in the final: “We are not similar players but we are strong people, strong personalities. I play the kicker, slice and topspin, she plays much more with power, but the key could be the consistency.”

If the match did not initially live up to its high expectations, it nevertheless did not lack quality or enjoyment.

It was simply that the first set was dominated by a stunning exhibition of consistent tennis from the Chinese player who was in such a groove of concentration and confidence that Schiavone could make little impression.

Li has, in the past, found it hard to keep that concentration and focus -keep her emotions in check -at the big moments.

But since losing the Australian final to Clijsters, Li had taken on a new coach, the Dane Michael Mortensen, and the impact was obvious in her calmer demeanour.

Her losses in the spring turned into wins on the clay, and she had grown more impressive with each round of the French tournament.

Even in the opening game, Li gained a break point with her now infamous cross-court forehand, though this time Schiavone held and the set stayed with serve until the fifth game.

Li then attacked the net in a beautifully expressive drive volley and, demonstrating her outstanding movement, she made a second volley winner to bring up two break points.

She took the second for a 3-2 lead, and the slow-mo replays showed just what a balanced and elegant athlete the Chinese woman has become.

Schiavone held strongly to stay in the set at 3-5 and saw a small opening at 30-30 on Li’s serve, but the Chinese woman slammed the door shut: 6-4. It was a wonder, indeed, that Schiavone managed four games. Her serving percentage was just 55 compared with 72 and she found only three winners to Li’s 15.

Li continued to outplay Schiavone on her opening service game, breaking to love with her flourishing flat, angled ground strokes, and was soon up, 2-0.

In the fifth game again, Li attacked the Schiavone serve. In a tight, important game, both women challenged for the net.

Li pulled off a drive forehand volley winner that brought a huge smile to her face, the joy she has in her tennis writ large. Schiavone then faced a break point which she saved with an off-forehand winner followed by a big serve.

The tough hold seemed to light a fire in Schiavone’s eyes as she ran to the chair for the change of ends, yet Li tightened her grip.

She dominated in backhand winners as well as forehands, and all in the face of vicious sliced shots from an opponent trying to break the Li rhythm, but to no avail.

Schiavone was forced into more errors as she began to overhit her shots, but the fire simmered. She held on to survive another break point in the seventh game with a drive volley winner that had the crowd out of the seats.

With the winning post in sight and that missed break point chance in her head, Li started to look a little tight. She went 0-30 down on serve and then 30-40 down as her forehand deserted her. And it was her trademark forehand, fired wide, that gave Schiavone the break back, 4-4.

The genie in the bottled-up Schiavone was ready to burst out and recapitulate her comeback from a similar position against Pavlyuchenkova. Where Li had to fight hard to hold serve, Schiavone produced love games, taking the initiative and attacking the net for some great volley winners.

Then came what turned out to be a pivotal disputed line call as a Li forehand was confirmed in by the umpire. An unhappy Schiavone netted her next point to enter a tie-break.

The first point was a dramatic exchange of shots that Li won with a scintillating volley-lob combination. Her focus back in its groove, Li’s forehand winners fired up again to force errors from her opponent.

A backhand smash took Li to 4-0 and there was no way back for the defending champion: A 24th unforced error gave Li the final game to love.

Just as Schiavone’s win last year was a record-breaking achievement -the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam -so this year’s winner managed, at the same age, to become the first Asian winner of a Grand Slam.

Much has been made of their mature years but both women, quite rightly, are dismissive. From Schiavone: “The years can help a lot. It’s like wine – if it stays in the bottle more it’s much, much better.”

Li, in her usual frank and disarming way, put it more bluntly: “Some people say I’m getting old -so the old woman had the dream come true.”

And the “old woman” from China has the type of game, attitude and fitness to fulfil a few more dreams yet.

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