China's Li Na wins French Open, makes history



(06-04) 04:00 PDT Paris --

Li Na achieved a personal dream and changed Chinese sports history Saturday at the French Open.


Li beat defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy, 6-4, 7-6 (0) to take the women's title at Roland Garros, becoming the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles trophy.

In January, she became the first Asian-born player to reach a major championship match at the Australian Open, where she lost to Kim Clijsters of Belgium.

The American-born Michael Chang, who won the 1989 French Open men's title at age 17, was the first player of Asian heritage to win a major.

It's a "dream come true," Li, 29, said. "Since I was a young player, I wanted to be the Grand Slam champion. Someone said I'm getting old, but the old woman likes it that the dream came true. It wasn't easy."

The sixth-seeded Li was introduced to tennis by her parents at age 9 in Wuhan, China, after playing badminton for two years. Li and Zheng Jie were once considered a platform generation, laying the foundation for the next generation of Chinese champions to come. But Li ended up becoming that champion herself.

Li broke away from the Chinese government's sports system in late 2008 under an experimental reform policy dubbed "Fly Alone." Li was given the freedom to choose her own coach (Denmark's Michael Mortensen) and to keep much more of her earnings: Previously, she turned over 65 percent to the authorities; now it's 12 percent. That comes to about $205,000 of the $1.7 million French Open winner's check.

"It was tough, I retired for two years, had injuries," Li said, a laptop by her side on which she had just been writing a blog for 2 million fans who follow her on the Chinese website

WTA Tour CEO Stacey Allaster said, "After the Australian Open, they made Li a national hero. I think now she will go to rock-star status."

Li's progress has been avidly followed in China. After she beat former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova of Russia in the semifinals, the Shanghai-based Oriental Daily said she was the "No. 1 Sister" of Chinese sports. Her semifinal win was watched by as many as 65 million viewers in China.

In the final, Li won the first set by putting Schiavone under pressure with her forehand. She led 4-2 in the second 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 over Schiavone's protests.

The reversal seemed to unnerve the Italian; Li won the game on the next point to force a tiebreaker; she won all seven points to capture the title.

Today, top seed Rafael Nadal of Spain plays the men's final against third-seeded Roger Federer of Switzerland.

The Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this report.



This article appeared on page B - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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