Roland Garros: Li d. Schiavone

Saturday, June 04, 2011 /by

Fs PARIS—For years, I used to walk out to the side courts in the early days of tournaments and look for Li Na. She wasn’t around too long back then; semifinal and final-round appearances were rare for her, so I had to take my chance while I had it.

What I wanted to see more than anything was her backhand. On a tour with more than its share of beautifully struck backhands, from Justine Henin’s to Maria Sharapova’s, hers still stuck out. It wasn’t as elegant as Justine’s or as vicious as Maria’s, but it was perfect in its way, technically sound without being mechanical, long but still graceful, powerful but balanced. Seeing her rope it so smoothly for winners, I’d always leave wondering why she didn’t show up in more of those semis and finals.

It wasn’t like Li had any major technical weaknesses. Her forehand was very good as well, and she was obviously the finest athlete of the WTA’s Chinese contingent. But she got nervous, and she got erratic, and she fought with her coaches, and she chafed in the Chinese system, until she finally left it. Even when she reached the Australian Open final this year, those troubles cropped up again. She led Kim Clijsters by a set and looked ready to assert herself in the second, but she tightened up instead.

That’s right where we were again at about 5:00 P.M. in Paris today. Li had dominated the defending champion, Francesca Schiavone, for a set and a half. As with many women’s finals here in the past, it looked like this one might never get competitive. Li took control with first serves down the T. She grabbed any ball that Schiavone left hanging, and there were a lot of them, and sent bullet forehands to the corners. She moved extremely well—this hard-court lover’s sliding is much improved—and anticipated Schiavone’s crafty attempts at slices and drops. When Li added some heavy top to her forehand, she got the ball up so high that it almost jumped over her dimunitive opponent. Li went up 6-4, 4-2 and looked ready to widen that lead. Schiavone couldn’t make any inroads into rallies, couldn’t assert herself, couldn’t make her variety or her net skills mean anything. She could barely get herself inside the baseline. Balls were flying by her so fast that most of the time she was left rooted to the ground, watching them.

But anyone who has seen much of Li knew that this wouldn’t be the end of the story. The nerves would be there, the sudden errors would be there, the frustrated, half-comical screams at her coaches and husband would be there. And they were. They came right on time, as she tried to extend her lead to 5-2. Suddenly Li’s forehand, so impenetrable earlier, caught the tape. Then it began to fly past the sidelines. Then her backhand became infected and found the net. Then the yelling began. As Schiavone leveled the score and even took the lead, Li began pointing at her own people. As always, her husband sat there and soaked it up, wry half-smile never leaving his face. In a weird way, it’s not a bad system. Rather than Li beating herself up, or feeling bad about beating someone else up, she just goes straight after the husband, lays it on him, and he takes it. Every tennis player could use a designated punching bag like that.

Meanwhile, Schiavone had made her inroads. She got her wild, whippy forehand working into the corners, and her trademark drop volley was deadly—does she ever miss that thing? But Schiavone, as feisty and intelligent as she is as a competitor, isn’t the player Clijsters is. Li righted herself at the end of the set. (Admittedly, with a little help. At 5-6, 30-30, the chair umpire incorrectly called a Li backhand in; Hawk-Eye showed that Schiavone, rather than the umpire, was pointing to the right mark, which was outside the sideline. It would have given the Italian a set point. A reason to have Hawk-Eye at the French? Or just a reason not to use that ump in finals again? A question for another day.)

By the tiebreaker, Li’s forehand was working again, and she was even winning the delicate drop/lob rallies that you would have thought would be Schiavone's bread and butter. In the end, Li was on her back, more emotional than I had ever seen her—she couldn't hide behind a clever quip this time.

It’s always nice to see a fresh face win a major. Last year, Schiavone’s win was inspiring for the way she pulled it off, the guts and panache she brought to the sometimes-chilly confines of Chatrier. Li’s was inspiring for who she was. As you surely know if you’re reading this article, Li is the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam. I don’t know what that will mean for China or for tennis, and Li didn’t make a grand speech about it. Typical of her low-key style, she mentioned that it was her friend’s birthday instead. But this time she couldn’t laugh everything off; there were tears from her afterward. From my perspective, her victory felt like a big deal because, when I saw her holding the trophy, the French Open trophy, a trophy of France and of Europe and of a signature, elite Western sport, the world felt just a little bit smaller.

Even better, though, was to remember all the times Li had hit all those perfect backhands in Indian Wells and Montreal and Key Biscayne, in Paris and at Wimbledon and on the back courts at Flushing Meadows, all those times I wondered why she wasn’t better. So many players never live up to that potential. Something gets in their way, usually exactly what had gotten in Li’s way—nerves, errors, outside problems, the immense difficulty in making yourself believe that  you—yeah, you—can be a Grand Slam champion.

Li had a reason not to believe. Nobody from her country, from her part of the world, had ever won one before. Now someone has. Today, she lived up to all of that ability, and more significantly, she might have made it a little easier for someone else to do the same somewhere down the line.

—Steve Tignor

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