What are your immediate impressions of Li Na’s 6-4, 7-6(0) victory over Francesca Schiavone for the French Open title?
The women’s tour was in total disarray two weeks ago. I’m not sure this fills the vacuum, but you could have done a lot worse than the defending champion and the first Chinese Grand Slam finalist playing for the trophy — and having the first Chinese winner. It was a reasonably competitive match. There are still a lot of questions swirling around the women’s game, but this was a nice uptick.
I was talking to Yao Ming a few months ago. Given how big sports are in Asia, he was surprised there haven’t been more sort of breakthrough figures. Li Na certainly fits that profile, so it will really be interesting to see how this plays out over there.
There’s been a lot of talk about Li’s victory prompting a tennis “boom” in China, but that’s awfully vague. What specific impact will you be looking for?
People always say that, but you’re never quite sure what the metrics are. Still, this isn’t Serbia we’re talking about. This is a much different model. If more people are going to watch than watched the Super Bowl, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility, that’s something you can monetize. If a sponsor is going to come up and put an event in China centered around Li Na, that’s something tangible.
And I also think it’s significant that she’s so colorful. She’s got a tattoo and her personality is quirky. She didn’t have the killer quotes that she had in Australia where she talked about her husband snoring, but she’s someone that people can identify with easily. People have a sense of who she is, which I think is important too. I think that’s a large part of what made Yao Ming this crossover figure as well, that he wasn’t this mysterious guy who didn’t speak English. People got him.
It wasn’t Novak Djokovic winning 43 in a row, but Schiavone had won 13 straight matches at Roland Garros entering today. What was Li able to do to end the Italian’s charmed run of play on these courts?
You don’t want to beat on Schiavone too bad, but it’s not like she had to go through the Williams sisters, Justine Henin and Martina Hingis to win those 13 matches. And Schiavone’s won a lot of close ones. We’re not talking about a hugely powerful player. Li stuck with her in the rallies and didn’t wilt in the breaker.
It’s a good win, a good storyline: Schiavone got her title last year and we have our first Chinese winner. Li Na won the first set in the Australian Open final against Kim Clijsters and was sort of shaky in the second too. It was nice she was able to get the butterflies out of her system in the first Grand Slam final and close the deal the second time.
Is Li a one-Slam wonder or do you see her contending at majors in the future?
Someone was joking her name should be Na Williams. She really plays well at the majors. If you look at her results at the Slams, she’s usually making that second week. At this stage in her career, there probably aren’t a ton of Slams left to win a second one. But given the state of the WTA Tour and given how she plays in majors, she absolutely will be a contender.
What’s next for both players moving forward in 2011?
I really admire Schiavone and like her game. But, realistically, is she going to win another major? Probably not.
But Li will be interesting. She had a terrible few months after the Australian Open where she just sort of burnt out, now she’s got a Grand Slam coming up in two weeks and I imagine the attention will be crazy — and that Wimbledon is fielding all sorts of requests from the Chinese media right now. It will certainly be interesting to see how it plays out. Anytime someone wins from an non-traditional tennis country, you hear the same things: what a game-changer for South America or this is really going to change tennis in Bulgaria. But China is a different beast and this could really be a seminal moment for tennis.