Li Na created sporting history at the French Open when she became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title on Saturday, defeating defending champion Francesca Schiavone, 6-4, 7-6, in the finals.
The victory should help ignite a tennis revolution in the country of 1.3 billion and could prove to be a critical boon for a sport badly in need of new markets and sponsors. Because of Yao Min, China is the NBA’s biggest market. Tennis may now follow suit due to Li Na, Grand Slam champion.
The win came just before midnight in Shanghai. It’s expected that as many as 50 million households in China watched the match, the same number that watches NFL conference championship games in the United States.
In her second Grand Slam final of the year, Li Na was more composed and played with the calm and precision of a tried and true champion. During her first Grand Slam final in Melbourne, the world No. 6 was flustered, even when winning the first set against Kim Clijsters. She complained to the chair umpire about loud fans and shot her husband frustrated glances throughout the match.
For 30-year-old Schiavone it was a bitter pill to swallow one year after she upset the odds to become Italy’s first and so far only Grand Slam women’s champion.
“I have to say congratulations to Li Na because she improved this year and she played really well today,” said Schiavone. “However, one has to lose, one has to win. She deserved to win as she played well. I couldn’t push her from the baseline when I wanted to. It was a good match.”
The final pitted two contrasting styles and in the end Li's power overwhelmed Schiavone's artful spins and sharp angles. She hit 31 winners, 15 off her forehand, and made 24 errors. In the second set tiebreak, she raced out to a 6-0 lead in an instant.
Li has had a whirlwind season. She was a surprise finalist at the Australian Open and then she went into a miserable slump. To get out of it, she hired a new coach, which was no easy decision since her previous coach was also her husband, Jiang Shan. After she lost in the second round in Stuttgart in April, Li and Jiang sat down and agreed that it was time to make a change. Enter Michael Mortensen.
Mortensen began working with Li in Madrid at the end of April. He admits that a lot of what he has told her—take a more direct path to the ball, make contact further out in front of her body—might well be advice she has heard many times before.
As Li won the final point and celebrated by falling flat on her back in the red clay, her husband and her new mentor, Michael Mortensen, hugged. When Li emerged from the locker room, Mortensen was there to greet her.
"Thank you Michael," she said as they embraced. "Li Na, I'm so proud of you," he said.
By winning the French Open, Li is expected to move to No. 4 in the rankings, equaling the record for the highest ranking by a woman from Asia. Japanese player Kimiko Date-Krumm has also been ranked No. 4.