(Getty Images)

“People really like win streaks,” I remember thinking as I sat at my desk in the old Roland Garros press room during the 2011 edition of the tournament. The win streak I was contemplating was Novak Djokovic’s, and it was a spectacular one: He hadn’t lost a match all year. With each of his victories in Paris, the tension around the grounds went up a notch, and the chatter in the media grew louder. It’s not often that tennis makes the home pages of sites like ESPN.com, or leads the highlights of nightly sports-news shows, but Djokovic’s streak put it there for two weeks.

By comparison, the other 255 singles players at Roland Garros that year were flying well under the press’s radar. That included Li Na. China’s No. 1 player had a few hundred million people watching her back home; she had reached the final of the Australian Open earlier that year; and she had made the semis of two French Open tune-ups in Madrid and Rome. Yet the No. 6 seed wasn’t a favorite to go all the way in Paris. For good reasons: She was 29, which in those days was still considered old an advanced age a tennis player. She had played Roland Garros four times and never been past the fourth round. She had gone through a spring slump that caused her to demote her husband and coach Jian Shang—you may remember him as Dennis—to just plain husband. And, perhaps most important, she was no fan of the surface in Paris. “I don’t like clay courts,” she readily admitted. She hadn’t seen many of them growing up in Wuhan.

In Li's mind, though, she still had a job to do.

“For a professional player, if you don’t like the arena, the weather, the surface, you still have to play the match,” she said during the tournament, with her trademark mix of blunt humor and good sense. “You have no choice. You have to challenge yourself to play.”

Li knocked out Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova before dethroning Francesca Schiavone in the final (Getty Images).

Li knocked out Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova before dethroning Francesca Schiavone in the final (Getty Images).

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Li Na did her job well in the early going. She dropped a set in her first-round win over Barbora Strycova, edged Silvia Soler Espinosa 6-4, 7-5, and cruised past Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 6-2. She was improving with each match, but the true test would come when she faced Petra Kvitova in the fourth round. Kvitova had handled her easily in the Madrid semifinals a month earlier, and, at 21, was starting to build the heavy-hitting momentum that would take her to the first of her two Wimbledon titles a few weeks later. For most of their fourth-round encounter, Kvitova looked as if she would put an end to Li Na’s French Open. The Czech won the first set 6-2, and led 3-0 in the third set. But both times Li Na powered past her. She won the final six games, and became the first player from China to make the final eight at Roland Garros.

But Li wasn’t just making breakthroughs for her country; she was also defying tennis’s traditional age limits. In 2011, Roger Federer and Serena Williams were still going strong at 29, but few players had ever made their first deep runs at a major at that age. All that was beginning to change, though, as the lifespans of tennis players lengthened. The previous year in Paris, 29-year-old Francesca Schiavone had won her first Slam, over 26-year-old Sam Stosur. In 2011, Schiavone and 26-year-old Marion Bartoli reached the semis at Roland Garros, while Federer reached the final on the men’s side. This year at Roland Garros, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is about to play her first Grand Slam semifinal at 29, but her age is hardly a shock. What was remarkable 10 years ago isn’t today.

She summed up tennis’s new mindset, in the quote I remember most from that year’s tournament. Asked to explain her late-career success, she scoffed.

“Age doesn’t mean anything,” Li said. “It’s just plus one. Age just paper.”

Age doesn’t mean anything. It’s just plus one. Age just paper. Li Na

“Age just paper”: They felt like words to live by at the time, and they turned out to be words to win by for Li Na. She wouldn’t drop a set the rest of the way, beating an up-and-coming Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-2, three-time major champion Maria Sharapova 6-4, 7-5, and Schiavone 6-4, 7-6 (0) in the final. When Djokovic’s win streak came to an end in the men’s semis, the media began to see that there was a much more historic story developing on the women’s side: Li Na was the first player from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Along the way, her stand-up-level comedic skills and disarming honesty had made her the toast of the interview room.

Asked what she was thinking at match point against Sharapova, she said, “She has a huge, big serve, and I was like, ‘Please double fault, and I can win the match.’”

Asked what she was thinking at the end of the final, she said, “At 6-0 in the tiebreak, I was thinking, ‘OK, don’t do anything stupid. Because many times I had match point and not won the match. When I was a young player, I wanted to be a Grand Slam champion and now I am. Someone said the other day that I’m getting old, so the old woman’s dream has come true.”

“Let the revolution begin,” The Guardian proclaimed in its post-final wrap the following day. “If this doesn’t spark a new wave of Chinese players in the years to come, then probably nothing will.”

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Few would have argued with that prediction at the time. 110 million Chinese tuned in to watch the final; even if only a tiny fraction of them picked up racquets, tennis could be transformed. Ten years later, the country still has a place on the women’s tennis map. It has two players, Wang Quang and Zhang Shuai, in the Top 50, and before the pandemic it played host to numerous WTA tournaments. But it’s hard to say that a wave followed in Li Na's wake; there are no Chinese men in the ATP’s Top 100.

As for the revolutionary herself, she retired in 2014 after winning her second major title, in Melbourne, and making Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. At 39, she’s the mother of a son and daughter and lives in Wuhan. But as AFP reported last week, in an article entitled “China Gives Li Na ‘Cold Shoulder’ Decade on From Changing Tennis,” the 10-year anniversary of her achievement only received a “passing mention” in her home country. According to AFP, she’s “only seen fleetingly” in the Chinese media, and was recently criticized by a ruling-party newspaper.

“These days the woman who stood out for her independent streak, chest tattoo and refusing to bow down to China's state sports system cuts a muted figure, including eschewing social media.”

Li Na famously left China’s sports system in 2008, and in 2013 she told the New York Times, “When people say that I represent the nation, that’s too big a hat for me to wear.”

Instead, she went her own way, kept her the money she made, won Grand Slams, and nearly reached No. 1. While that hasn’t led to a Chinese takeover of the tennis world, her win at Roland Garros may be the most dramatic example of the way tennis continues to cross borders. Since 2011, Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori have become the first two Japanese players to reach the Top 10. Hyeon Chung was the first player from South Korea to make a major semifinal. Ons Jabeur has broken new ground for Arab tennis. Iga Swiatek did the same for Poland at Roland Garros last fall, and Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari have followed suit for Greece over the last two weeks in Paris.

For much of its two weeks, the biggest story at the 2011 French Open was Djokovic’s win streak. Looking back now, nothing can touch Li Na’s title run. The photos of her holding the winner’s trophy in Paris still make the world feel a little smaller, and tennis a lot bigger.