China's Li Na held firm in the face of a ferocious comeback on the part of defending champion Francesca Schiavone to win 6-4, 7-6(0) and claim the first-ever Grand Slam title for a player from Asia.
The sixth seed put in a brilliant display, dominating Schiavone in the opening set and then stymieing the Italian's comeback in the second. Li is a fully deserving champion, having beaten four top ten seeds to claim the crown, and her success should do wonders for the popularity of the sport in China.
Ironically, the score-line is the same as last year's, when Schiavone took the opener then held off Sam Stosur with a stunning second-set tiebreak. As cool a performer as you are ever likely to see, Li applied herself brilliantly, never appearing to overstretch herself until the end when she found the passion she needed at just the right time. Confident her technique would see her through, she put her well-laid plans into practice and was duly rewarded.
Schiavone fought like a champion, defending her crown with all her might, but after stifling Marion Bartoli in her semi, she herself was prevented from taking control today. Constantly fetching and scurrying behind the baseline for a set and a half, the Italian mounted a stirring fight-back to force a tie-break, but could take her challenge no further.
Beautifully choreographed, the players arrived on Philippe Chatrier Court hand-in-hand with a ball boy, clutching a bouquet of flowers. Schiavone's intent was clear from the way she dropped the flowers on her chair and bounded onto the playing surface. What was also clear was that neither was about to choke, gripped by the fear that has struck finalists here in recent years. Li found her range from the off, hitting subtle and not-so-subtle winners to earn a break point in the first game. Schiavone was having none of it, and served her way out of trouble.
We had expected Schiavone to trouble the Chinese sixth seed with her trademark heavy topspin forehand, and now and then she got the ball to kick up and away off the dirt. But as the games progressed it became apparent that it was Li's sweet spot that was doing the damage. Thwack, went Francesca's racket. Tock, and back came the ball with interest off Li's strings, fizzing over the net left and right.
Li grabbed her first break for a 3-2 lead on the back of some lovely work off the ground, and despite the "Forza Franzi" cries of support from the Italian section of the crowd, Li went about her business, hitting consistently deep and punishing any short balls.
Games went with service and then came the first crunch of the match, with Li serving for the first set at 5-4. The woman from Wuhan had her game plan. Methodically making sure she got her first ball in, she pushed Schiavone back, relying on her sweetly-hit forehand to force errors and soon the first set was in the bag, 6-4.
The momentum hers, Li then did what all champions do; she made it count. Breaking Schiavone to open the second set, she then saved her first break point with an ace and held for 2-0, prompting the first Chinese voices in the crowd to shout their support from the upper stand and proudly wave their country's flag.
Schiavone digs deep
Li held nervelessly for 3-1 and produced some champagne tennis to secure a break point for a 4-1 lead. When the ball sat up short on that point begging to be put away, Francesca looked dead and buried, but Li chose that moment to show she is fallible, netting the chance and letting Schiavone hold for 3-2. Li held and carved out another break point in the following game, but the defending champion is nothing if not a fighter, and again she scrapped her way to a hold, for 3-4. And just as the trophy seemed to be slipping from her fingers, the Italian had a chance of her own. Earning two break points at 15-40, the first was all she needed as Li hit wide. Incredibly, Schiavone was back in it at 4-4.
Reinvigorated, the fifth seed at last seized the initiative. Stepping in to cut off Li's ground strokes closer to the baseline, she also found the heavy first services that had eluded her all match, holding for 5-4 and leading 15-30 in the next game as Li hit an air-shot. After berating herself, Li took a deep breath, remembered to hit through the ball and called on her technique to hold for 5-5.
Still Schiavone slugged away, mixing things up to keep her opponent guessing. Forays to the net were rewarded and she held to love to lead 6-5. Six points later came a moment of great drama. At deuce, Li hit another long forehand, the ball landing on, or close, to the line. Schiavone gestured it out with her racket and skipped to the "ad" court, but umpire Louise Engzell descended from her chair and disagreed, holding firm as the Italian protested. The ball was in, and though Schiavone seemed flustered, few would have guessed that she would not win another point...
One way traffic
In the ensuing tie-break, Li showed she could stand toe-to-toe with Schiavone and carried off the next seven points with brio. The first was a classic, both players drawn to the net and Li winning with a brilliantly-executed lob. Two big services, a magnificent volleyed winner from mid-court when back-peddling and then a battling defensive cross-court forehand which forced Schiavone to net gave her a 5-0 lead. Two more long forehands from the champion and the trophy was Li's.
Li fell backwards to the earth as the ball landed out, before leaping to her feet and running to the net to embrace her opponent. Schiavone was gracious in defeat, taking time to congratulate the victor. Grazie Francesca, nǐ hǎo Li Na: 2011 French Open champion.