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Li Na becomes first Chinese to win Grand Slam singles title

PARIS (AP) ― As China’s Li Na tossed the ball while serving at match point in the French Open final, a cry from a fan in the stands pierced the silence at Court Philippe Chatrier.

Distracted, Li stopped and let the ball drop. The words of support were in Mandarin: “Jia you!” ― which loosely translates to “Let’s go!” After so many years of “Come on” and “Allez” and “Vamos,” there’s a new language on the tennis landscape.
China’s Li Na reacts after winning the French Open tennis championship. (AFP-Yonhap News)
China’s Li Na reacts after winning the French Open tennis championship. (AFP-Yonhap News)

Li became the first Chinese player, man or woman, to win a Grand Slam singles title by beating defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy 6-4, 7-6 (0) at Roland Garros on Saturday. The sixth-seeded Li used powerful groundstrokes to compile a 31-12 edge in winners, and won the last nine points of the match, a run that began when the fifth-seeded Schiavone was flustered by a line call she was sure was wrong.

“China tennis ― we’re getting bigger and bigger,” said Li, who is projected to rise to a career-best No. 4 in Monday’s new WTA rankings.

She already was the first woman from that nation of more than 1 billion people to win a WTA singles title, the first to enter the top 10 in the rankings, and the first to make it to a Grand Slam final ― she lost to Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open in January.

Thinking back to that defeat, Li said: “I had no experience. I was very nervous. For my second time in a final, I had the experience. I knew how to do it. And I had more self-confidence.”

Tennis is considered an elite sport in China, and while participation is rapidly increasing, it still trails basketball, soccer and table tennis, among others. But Li’s victory was big news back home, where the match finished shortly after 11 p.m. local time on a holiday weekend.

State broadcaster CCTV posted the banner, “We love you Li Na,” on their gushing coverage, and announcer Tong Kexin pronounced: “This has left a really deep impression on the world.” People at the Green Bank Tennis Club on Beijing’s northern edge gathered to eat barbecued food, drink beer and watch the events from Paris on a big-screen TV set up on a court. Some waved Chinese flags during the postmatch trophy ceremony.

Li broke away from the Chinese government’s sports system in late 2008 under an experimental reform policy for tennis players dubbed “Fly Alone.” Li was given the freedom to choose her own coach and schedule and to keep much more of her earnings: Previously, she turned over 65 percent to the authorities; now it’s 12 percent. That comes to about $205,000 of the $1.7 million French Open winner’s check.

“We took a lot of risks with this reform. When we let them fly, we didn’t know if they would succeed. That they have now succeeded, means our reform was correct,” said Sun Jinfang, an official with the Chinese Tennis Association. “This reform will serve as a good example for reforms in other sports.”

At her news conference, Li wore a new T-shirt with Chinese characters that mean “sport changes everything,” and offered thanks to Sun.

“Without her reform, then possibly we wouldn’t have achieved this success,” Li said.

When a reporter mentioned the June 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and asked whether her victory could spark a sports revolution, Li said she’s “just” a tennis player and added, “I don’t need to answer ... this question.”

Her tennis game, filled with flat forehands and backhands, looks better-built for hard courts, rather than the slow, red clay of Paris. Indeed, Li never had won a clay-court tournament until Saturday. She lost in the third round in three of her previous four French Opens, including against Schiavone a year ago.

But Li’s movement on clay is better now, Schiavone explained, saying: “She slides a little bit more.”

Li repeatedly set up points with her backhand, then closed them with her forehand, and she finished with 21 winners from the baseline, 15 more than Schiavone. Only after Li controlled the first set and the early part of the second did Schiavone begin working her way into the match.