Li Na beat defending champion Francesca Schiavone to take the French Open women’s title, becoming the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam tennis singles final.
Li, 29, defeated the Italian, 6-4, 7-6 (7-0) on Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros in Paris.
“She tried to come back,” Li said in a courtside interview after the match. “I needed to stand up and make it. Everyone must be so excited” in China.
Chinese women had won Olympic gold medals and Grand Slam titles in doubles. In January, Li became the first Asian player to reach a major championship match at the Australian Open, where she lost to Kim Clijsters of Belgium.
“I congratulate Li Na on this historic victory which is credit to her incredible skill, determination and perseverance in winning China’s first Grand Slam,” Stacey Allaster, chairman and chief executive officer of the WTA Tour, said in an e-mailed statement. “Her win today will inspire an entire generation of young girls to play tennis and propel the sport to new levels of global popularity and growth.”
The sixth-seeded Li, who was introduced to tennis at age of nine in Wuhan, China, after playing badminton for two years, had defeated three-time major champion Maria Sharapova of Russia in the semifinals to become the first Chinese player to reach a singles final in Paris.
Watched by former Grand Slam champions Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis, Li broke for a 3-2 lead in the first set. Serving at 5-4, she produced two forehand winners and took the set when Schiavone hit a forehand long.
Li broke again early in the second for a 4-2 lead before Schiavone fought back to go in front 5-4. With Li serving at 6-5 and 40-40, the umpire overruled a call of out on a Li backhand. Li then won the game on the next point to force the tiebreaker, in which she took won all seven points to capture the title.
“You couldn’t push her forward from the baseline,” Schiavone, the fifth-seed, said. “She deserved to win.”
Li said that she had been nervous, “but I didn’t want to show my opponent. I was a little bit cheeky.”
Li’s progress at the French Open was closely followed by Chinese media and state-run China Central Television. After her match against Sharapova, which was watched by the Chinese ambassador to France, the Shanghai-based Oriental Daily said she was the “Number One Sister” of Chinese sport. Her semifinal win was watched by as many as 65 million viewers in China, according to the French Open website.
Li is part of a generation of women’s tennis players from China who were nicknamed the “Golden Flowers” by state media after Li Ting and Sun Tian Tian won the women’s doubles gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
In 2006, Zheng Jie and Yan Zi became the country’s first Grand Slam champions, taking the women’s doubles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. They also won the bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. China now has four women ranked in the top 100.
Li went into a slump after reaching the Australian final because she struggled with the off-court demands on her time, she said in an interview at a tournament in Rome last month.
After Melbourne, she lost in the opening round of her next four tournaments. She started working with Denmark’s Federation Cup coach Michael Mortensen and made the semifinals of events in Madrid and Rome on clay, a slow surface she had never played on while learning the game in China.
The French Open was marked by early exits of the women’s top seeds. The second-seeded Clijsters lost in the second round, No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark was beaten in the third round and No. 3 Vera Zvonareva of Russia lost in the fourth round.
Serena and Venus Williams, the American sisters who have won 20 Grand Slam singles titles between them, were absent from because of injuries, while four-time champion Justine Henin of Belgium retired after the Australian Open with an elbow injury.
As many as 65 million people watched Li’s first Grand Slam final appearance in Melbourne on television in China, the women’s WTA tour said at the time and her run led to sponsorship deals with watch brand Rolex, ice-cream maker Haagen-Dasz and medical kinesiology tape developer Spider-Tech.
The tour last year estimated that 14 million people in China regularly play tennis, up from 1 million when the sport returned to the Olympics in 1988. Li hoped her performance in Paris would inspire young children in China to pick up a racket and start playing.
“When I was young, I never had a chance to watch tennis,” Li said in a news conference after her semifinal. “But it is getting better because now the young players, they can see me on TV.”