Li Na became the first Chinese player to lift a Grand Slam as she won the French Open final on Saturday to dethrone reigning champion Francesca Schiavone.
The 29-year-old survived a late wobble to win 6-4, 7-6(0) in one hour and 48 minutes and avenge her defeat to Schiavone here last year on the Italian’s way to her maiden major win.
That, coupled with her preference on clay, made Schiavone the slight favourite, but Li dominated with her serve and baseline play that made her a formidable object that the Italian could not find a way past.
After squandering an early break point Li finally secured the advantage in game five when she broke for a 3-2 lead. Her powerful serve would help her see out the set. It was secured with another trademark of this match, Li’s mesmerising cross-court forehand, which secured set point after just 39 minutes.
She had only dropped six points on serve throughout the entire set.
Li broke again at the start of the second when Schiavone netted a forehand and, given the chance to break straight back, the 30-year-old could only watch as a Li ace sailed straight past her.
Schiavone was struggling to make any inroads from the baseline and couldn’t match the shot selection displayed by her opponent as she tried to find a way back in to the match.
Li failed to take further break points, though, and, not used to being in this position, the nerves inevitably began to show. In game eight four forehand errors gave Schiavone the break back and at 4-4 the pressure began to mount.
Her confidence was returning and the crowd began to sniff a third set as the predicted showers held off. But her game fell apart when leading 6-5 as a controversial line-call put her off her stride and she failed to win another point, Li strolling 7-0 through the ensuing tie-break.
Despite calls from her own fans disrupting her concentration slightly, Li composed herself and served out the final point that began the celebrations as China joined the illustrious list of nations to have produced Grand Slam Champions.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Li afterwards, “because China never had a Grand Slam champion, so that’s why so many players in China are working so hard. The dream is you can be the top player or win the Grand Slam.
“When I was a young player I wanted to be in a Grand Slam final. But today, some people say I’m getting old – so the old woman had the dream come true. Not easy,” added the star, who lost to Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open final in January.
“After the French in the next two weeks is Wimbledon, so I don’t have time to go back to China right now,” she joked. “I’ll go back after Wimbledon. If I don’t do well at Wimbledon maybe the people forget me already. These are tough times.
“I think right now is the best time for me because I can enjoy it with my team, not like Melbourne. Now I’ll just enjoy it with my team and focus on Wimbledon.”
In the men’s final yesterday, Rafael Nadal equalled Bjorn Borg’s record of six French Open titles when he won a fantastic bout with great rival Roger Federer in a rain-interrupted 7-5, 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-1 victory after three hours and 39 minutes.
The win was the tenth Grand Slam for the 25-year-old, who now sits six behind Federer in the all-time list, and just as importantly means he remains top of the South African Airways ATP World Rankings going in to Wimbledon.
Federer, full of confidence after finally stopping Novak Djokovic after 43 matches in the semi-finals, began well, and with Nadal struggling with blisters and confidence he looked to be steaming towards the first set.
His forehand was giving the Spaniard all sorts of problems and serving for the set at 5-3, a delicate drop-shop attempt on set point dropped marginally the wrong side of the line.
Nadal has dominated at this event, losing only once in the 2009 quarter-final to Robin Soderling, and that moment seemed to give him his confidence back as a vicious cross-court backhand dug him out of trouble and before you knew it he had levelled at 5-5.
The tennis on display was breathtaking, two blistering forehands and a sumptuous lob over Federer’s head helping him to a 6-5 lead. Nadal continued to press and another sweeping shot across court left Federer rooted to the spot and secured the first set.
The shock must have hurt the Swiss native and he started the second set poorly, Nadal breaking him in the first game. With his usually trusty backhand beginning to leak points Federer had to rely on his serve to fight off break points, but his harrowing persistence was rewarded when Nadal miss-hit a backhand and the set was tied at 4-4.
And just when it looked like Nadal might charge ahead when serving at 5-4 following another break, the rain arrived at 40-40 and play was suspended for ten minutes. When it resumed, Nadal seemed to miss concentration and Federer tied again, eventually forcing a tie-break.
But Nadal rallied again and forced more forehand errors from his opponent as he raced in to a 4-0 lead. Federer didn’t respond.
In to the third set, a poor drop shot and a ferocious Nadal return of serve saw the Majorcan move 4-2 ahead and few could envisage a Federer fight back. But you don’t just pick up 16 Grand Slams, and Federer can back again, taking four games in a row to serve out the third set to rapturous applause from the crowd.
But his steam had run out after matching Nadal’s tenacity for so long, and further errors coupled with some tired shot selection meant the most successful player of all time could not prevent Nadal taking the fourth set 6-1, and once he had served it out he sank to his knees in tears of joy.
“It’s very special to equal the six French Opens of Bjorn Borg – it’s an honour to be compared to Borg,” Nadal said of equalling the record, “but the most important thing is to win Roland Garros.”
“I’m not the best player in the history of tennis but I’m amongst the best and that’s enough for me.”
“To win this kind of title is always satisfying,” explained Nadal, who was not at his best throughout the tournament and suffered a first round scare against John Isner. “But sometimes when you fight a lot to win, when you try your best in every moment to change the situation, it makes the title more special.
“For example, in 2008 I think I played better than ever, but I finished the tournament and I didn’t feel that I won Roland Garros because I won in three sets every round.”