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Sunday, June 5, 2011

French Open: Asian History Written in Paris

It's a special thing when you watch a match and know that  the outcome will be written into tennis history. It's even more special when you watch it happen before your eyes two years in a row. That has been the story of Roland Garros, and I must say, it has been spectacular.

For one woman, this year's French Open was a chance to revalidate her championship the year before—a chance to ignite the cheers of the Paris crowd and reclaim the crown she had once only seen from afar. For the other, this year's French Open was a chance to validate a culture's place in the tennis world—a chance to be the first Asian woman to win a singles title and lift the trophy many had said she would never earn. For both Francesca Schiavone and Li Na, this was a tournament of dreams, but only for one could those dreams be realized.

Congratulations to Li Na and her incredible achievement.

From the beginning of the match you knew both women had come prepared with well-established game plans. Schiavone darted and moved fantastically on the loose dirt, carving with such fluid strokes that it's a wonder she hasn't claimed more major red clay titles. On the other side of the court, Li Na battered the ball with tremendous consistency; a well angled forehand and baseline-cracking backhands her two most formidable weapons.

But Li Na was a step better. After claiming the first set 6-4, she moved up a break in the second, playing well enough to keep Schiavone on her heels and looking overwhelmed. But as we've learned, there's no counting the Italian out despite a losing scoreline—it's up to her opponents to raise their level and shut the door securely. At first, Li Na struggled to snap Schiavone's surge. On both of Schiavone's service games after the initial break, Li squandered double-break opportunities and before you knew it, the Chinese no. 1 looked too panicked to close the set. You could see the headlines being written: Schiavone pulls biggest comeback of career to reclaim French Open title. But Li Na refused to fall victim to Schiavone's flare like others had (oh Pavlyuchenkova...).

Despite losing her lead, Li took Schiavone to a tiebreak after a dodgy call on a backhand that Schiavone felt was out. From there, it was Li's championship to take. Schiavone may have been rattled by the questionable mark, but in a tiebreak, both players start at 0 and have an even chance. It didn't appear that way in Paris.

The tiebreak showcased a stunning performance by Li, including lobs, drop shots and a barrage of scrambling winners that left Schiavone dazed and confused. Both players played incredible points, but it was the Chinese woman who finally shut the door on Schiavone. Shut it, and locked it, winning every single point to close the tiebreak 7-0.

For Li Na, this championship is more than her first grand slam title: it's a celebration for an entire Asian culture which has been seeking for their first tennis champion since their foray into the Open Era. It was a beautiful moment when Li dropped to the clay in bliss, covering her face which was surely a mixture of smiles and tears. On that day in Paris, she was the best, but forever, she will be the first.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor


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