China, welcome to big-time tennis.
Li Na became the first Chinese player to ever win a major on Saturday, defeating defending champion Francesca Schiavone, 6-4, 7-6, in the finals of the French Open. 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.
The 29-year-old from China dominated the first hour of play before Schiavone, looking to defend her 2010 French Open title, found her legs, earned a set-tying break and reversed the momentum of the match. At 6-5 in the second set it looked like Schiavone would have a set point on Li's serve. An overrule of a line call by the chair gave Li the advantage and, eventually, the game. She went on to sweep the tiebreak.
When Schiavone's final shot went long, Li Na fell to the clay with her arms extended and looked up at her player's box, where her husband, whom she fired as coach earlier this year, applauded. 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 cognizant of the moment. During her first appearance 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. On Saturday, she was the picture of calm. When Schiavone made a late bid to push the match to three sets, Li didn't panic.
Whether the win ushers in a revolution of Chinese players in women's tennis is an answer we won't know for years. If past history means anything, it probably won't. Yao Ming was supposed to do the same for basketball but almost a decade later there's only a handful of Chinese players in the league. It was expected that the dominance of Serena and Venus Williams would open up tennis to America's inner-cities. There's been no discernible effect on the professional game.
What it will do is something far more important to women's tennis. Li's win brings the game to a country with 1.3 billion people and an appetite for western sports. Because of Yao, China is the NBA's biggest market. Tennis may follow suit due to Li Na, Grand Slam champion.