Tennis

Li's triumph a victory for China

Image: Li Na (© Thomas Coex/AP)
Will millions of Chinese take up tennis? Li Na hopes so.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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PARIS

What's the estimate? Twenty million Chinese taking to the courts for the first time tomorrow? That's what Li Na is hoping and if it's correct, it will all be her doing. Li's impressive 6-4, 7-6 victory over the defending champion Francesca Schiavone here at Roland Garros brought China its first ever Grand Slam singles title and opened up a new chapter of popularity for the sport in that vast nation.

And this is only step one. Sometime in the future, China will produce a male player capable of taking on the best and then the racket manufacturers can really anticipate a bonanza. But for the moment, this will do nicely.

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"This is a dream come true," Li said with a huge smile afterwards. "Ever since young girl I was dreaming of winning a Grand Slam. It's amazing feeling. Now this will help make tennis in China bigger and bigger. Before tournament Nike China made thirty yellow T-shirts for my team. Now everybody wants one. I think they will have to make more!"

The match itself was in danger of turning into a blowout when Li, going for her shots and scoring with forehands all over the court, led 6-4, 4-2. But Schiavone was not going to let go of her title that easily and, in her feisty, extroverted way the Italian forced her way back into the match in the seventh game in which she held serve with a spectacular drive-volley winner from mid-court. Four forehand errors from a suddenly tentative Li in the next game enabled Schiavone to draw level at 4-4 and at least offer her noisy fans the hope that every tiebreak brings for the struggling player.

But Li composed herself as she stood on the threshold of history and grabbed the first point of the tiebreak on the Italian's serve with a solid forehand volley and never let go, sweeping through the entire breaker without the loss of a point.

"Of course I was nervous," said Li, who got the benefit of an umpire's decision on a line call in the twelfth game. "But in the tiebreak I was just telling myself, 'Don't do anything stupid!'"

She didn't and her new coach, Denmark's Michael Mortensen, was proud of her.

"She remained calm when she lost the break in the second and, at the start, she had played really positive," Mortensen said. "It was that attitude which won her the match."

Schiavone had another explanation.

"I think she played really deep, so I couldn't play my spin really high. So she could come in," Schiavona said. "She played really high-level though one set and to 3-1 she as playing really good in the second. I think in the end we were really close but she fought a lot and I think she deserve this final."

Li says she won't have time to go home before Wimbledon.

"So that's good because I can just celebrate with my team and concentrate on Wimbledon," she said. "If I don't do well there, people will forget me already!"

She's an engaging personality, this new Grand Slam champion, and if she can sort out the WTA ranking list by actually becoming No. 1 in the world, that would put an end to all these players reaching the top spot without actually winning a Grand Slam. Caroline Wozniacki – no fault of hers -- is the current incumbent and Li will be no higher than fourth despite having reached the final of the Australian Open and winning the French this year.

Winning Wimbledon may be a stretch for her but she did get as far as the quarterfinals last year so hopefully this 29-year-old can continue this late-career surge and add a few million more supporters by showing China how to pay on grass after the clay.

They'll be tearing up the hard courts by the hundred if Li goes on like this.

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