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Friday Flashback: Li Na Surprises as French Open Champion 10 Years Ago

By Erik Gudris | @ATNTennis | Friday, June 11, 2021

When Li Na flashed a huge smile upon winning Roland Garros in 2011, it capped off a surprise yet satisfying two weeks for the charismatic Chinese veteran.

Many thought the 29-year-old might win a major title late in her career. But it’s likely few would have picked the red clay of Paris for that victory.

“Madame Li”, as she was referred to formally by the chair umpires in her matches, definitely ruled the courts in Paris that year. But Li’s title run was not easy, though. In the final, she defeated another surprise finalist in defending champion Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6(0). 330 million television viewers watched the match around the world.

“At 6-0 in the tiebreak, I was thinking ok, don't do anything stupid," Li said after the match. “Because many times I have had match point and not won the match. When I was a young player, I wanted to be a grand slam champion and now I am. Someone said the other day that I'm getting old, so the old woman's dream has come true.”

Li had long been a fixture on the WTA Tour and started enjoying more success in singles late in her career. She burst into household name status at the 2011 Australian Open when she reached her first ever major final. Kim Clijsters defeated Li in the title match. Yet, it was Li’s funny post-match interviews, mostly where she made jokes at the expense of her husband and coach, that quickly made her a fan favorite.

With hard courts being her favorite surface, Li’s run at Roland-Garros certainly proved a surprise. As with many previous times before, the women’s draw included several big seeds exiting early, including top seed Caroline Wozniacki and No. 2 seed Clijsters.

The sixth-seeded Li defeated the fourth seed Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals and that set up a semifinal showdown with two-time former winner No. 7 seed Maria Sharapova. Despite having only beaten the Russian great just twice in their previous seven matches, Li found a way to subdue Sharapova 6-4, 7-5 and reach the final.

Waiting for her there was none other than the defending champion Schiavone. Though she was defending her title, many didn’t expect the veteran Italian to make another deep run in Paris.

Schiavone battled past then 19-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 1-6, 7-5, 7-5 to reach the semifinals. She then saw off French hope and No. 11 seed Marion Bartoli easily 6-3, 6-3 to reach the final.

The fifth-seeded Schiavone entered the match having defeated Li in the third round of Roland Garros in the previous year.

Both women matched each other with exquisite shotmaking and stellar court coverage. Yet it was Li who took the first set 6-4.

Li secured an early service break in the second set and looked headed to a quick victory. Schiavone often found herself pinned to the baseline and could not venture into the net as much as she would have liked—a tactic that she used in the previous year’s final against Sam Stosur with great success.

The crafty Schiavone held on though, thanks with some help from Li who began to commit more forehand errors. Schiavone broke back for 4-all.

A refocused Li, appearing more confident than in her first major final back in Melbourne, reset her own game just in time. Both players entered a tiebreak, and from there Li took complete control of the match. Li didn’t lose a point and soon wrapped up the 6-4, 7-6(0) victory.

Li made history as she became the first Chinese player ever to win a major singles title. Li’s victory propelled into global superstar status soon after as she became one of the highest paid tennis players thanks to multiple endorsement deals.

Li continued her Grand Slam success by finally winning the Australian Open in 2014. Li’s season though was disrupted by a knee injury and she later announced her retirement from the sport that September. She finished with nine singles titles and a career ranking of No. 2 in the world.

Photo credit: Roland Garros Facebook