Friday 23 March 2018

Li makes Slam breakthrough

Eleanor Crooks

China's Li Na became the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles title with a 6-4 7-6 (7/0) victory over defending champion Francesca Schiavone in the French Open final yesterday afternoon.

The sixth seed produced a brilliant display of precision tennis to end her opponent's 13-match winning run at Roland Garros in an hour and 48 minutes. Schiavone mounted an impressive fightback after being comprehensively outplayed for a set and a half but Li raised her game again in the tie-break.

The Italian was a hugely popular winner last year with her joie de vivre and unpredictable game, mixing spins and slices in a way rarely seen in the women's game these days.

Li is a much flatter hitter who relies principally on power, but her on-court nous marks her out while she had also shown herself to be mentally very strong in wins over Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.

With a 30-year-old taking on a 29-year-old for the first time since the Wimbledon final of 1998 between Jana Novotna and Nathalie Tauziat, talk prior to the match had been about the value of experience.

Both were playing in their second Grand Slam final, with Li having lost to Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open in January. The Chinese player certainly began the stronger and, after missing out on a break point in the opening game, she broke the Schiavone serve to move 4-3 ahead.

The fifth seed was being pulled all over the court, and it was a strategy she could not cope with as Li, who had been well beaten in their third-round meeting here last year, took the first set in 39 minutes.

The 29-year-old was serving superbly and she increased her advantage with a break at the start of the second set. The point of the match, ending with a lovely volley from Schiavone, gave the Italian a chance to respond but Li simply produced an ace.

She then had an opening to move 4-1 ahead but a netted forehand perhaps showed the challenger was not quite as relaxed as she appeared to be. Schiavone saved two more break points at 4-2 as she battled to hang onto the trophy, and in the next game she took her opportunity when Li faltered for the first time.

Suddenly it was the sixth seed who was under pressure on her serve, and Schiavone felt she should have had a set point when a backhand from Li was called out but then overruled.

Instead the Chinese player held to force a tie-break, and she made a perfect start, winning the first four points. When Schiavone dumped a volley in the net on the fifth point, there was no way back, and Li sealed victory when the Italian sent a backhand long.

Schiavone was gracious in defeat, saying: "Today was really tough. I have to say congratulations to Li Na, she's grown up so much this year and she played really well today. It's been a fantastic tournament for me. To kiss the clay every day comes from my heart."

Li, who had never won a clay-court tournament before, promised to come back next year, while there was some booing for umpire Louise Engzell at the presentation ceremony following her controversial call.

Sunday Indo Sport

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