Li Na, 2011 French Open Champion!
China is known for its domination in the sport of table-tennis, but in tennis it is a completely different story. Indeed, tennis has long been dominated by players from Europe, America and Australia. While Asian players like Kimiko Date-Krumm (former world No. 4) and Paradorn Srichaphan (former world No. 9) were able to win a few titles and make some deep runs in Grand Slams, Asia has failed to produce one single major champion. Until now.
Li Na, from Wuhan China, became the first Asian player to reach a Grand Slam final at the 2011 Australian Open (l. to Kim Clijsters). And at the 2011 French Open, she went one-step further and became the first Grand Slam champion from her continent by defeating the defending champion from Italy, Francesca Schiavone.
Many claimed this year's French Open the "most open" Grand Slam in recent years, and so it proved to be. None of the top four seeds were able to make it to the semifinals, and the "favorite" for the crown changed after each passing day. Not many predicted the final line-up of Li and Schiavone, even fewer picked the Chinese woman to win the title. But against all odds, Li conquered the Parisian clay and for ever etched her name in the annals of tennis.
It is hard enough to make it to a major final, and it is even harder to win it. Many players faltered at the last hurdle (one needs to look no further than the dropping out list below). To make it to two consecutive Grand Slam finals is no small feat. And to win the second final after losing the first one takes courage, dedication and enormous self-belief. To be a champion, you must have the heart of a champion.
This installment of our women's power rankings is a tribute to the 2011 French Open Champion, Li Na from China. Her success will for sure serve as an inspiration to the next generation of young players from China and Asia.
Jelena Jankovic (Last Power Ranking: 9; WTA Ranking: 15)
Jelena Jankovic reached the fourth round at Roland Garros, losing to Schiavone in three sets. She made it to the semifinals in three of the past four years. Her best result at a Grand Slam was a runner-up finish at the 2008 US Open (l. to Serena Williams). She has reached the fourth round at Wimbledon on four different occasions, including last year. She has been a fixture in the world top ten for the past few years, but dropped to No. 15 this week.
Julia Goerges (Last Power Ranking: 7; WTA Ranking: 16)
Julia Goerges reached the third round at Roland Garros, losing to Marion Bartoli. She was in great form coming into the French Open, reaching the final four in Madrid and winning Stuttgart. Bur her inexperience at the majors prevented her from going deeper into the draw. She lost in the first round at Wimbledon in the last two years. She is currently at her career high world ranking of No. 16.
Caroline Wozniacki (Last Power Ranking: 4; WTA Ranking: 1)
Caroline Wozniacki, the current world No. 1, crashed out of the French Open in the third round at the hand of Daniela Hantuchova, winning a total of four games in that match. Similar to Andy Murray on the men's side, the wait for the first major continues. She reached the US Open final in 2009 (l. to Kim Clijsters), but has since failed to duplicate that effort at Grand Slams. Her best result at Wimbledon is the fourth round, achieved in the past two years. She is the only top player in action this week, defending the title at her home event in Copenhagen.
Samantha Stosur (Last Power Ranking: 2; WTA Ranking: 10)
Samantha Stosur famously lost to Schiavone in last year's French Open final, since she entered that contest as the strong favorite. Her campaign this year was unceremoniously ended by Gisela Dulko in the third round. She has never performed well at Wimbledon, exiting in the first round on four occasions, most recently last year.
Last Power Ranking: NR; WTA Ranking: 3
Last Four Tournaments: Roland Garros [R16], Brussels [Semifinalist], Madrid [R16], Stuttgart [Quarterfinalist]
Power Ranking Points: 392
Vera Zvonareva lost to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the fourth round at Roland Garros. She could have lost earlier in the second round against Sabine Lisicki. Lisicki missed a match point at 5-2 in the third set and after that her body started failing her, eventually causing her to lose the final set 5-7. The German had to be carried off court on a stretcher.
The French Open has never been a favorite tournament for the Russian, reaching the quarterfinal once back in 2003. But she has done very well in the past three Grand Slams, reaching back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and US Open last year and the semifinals at the Australian Open this year.
Grass Success? Zvonareva made to her first major final at last year's Wimbledon, beating Jelena Jankovic and Kim Clijsters along the way. But she was no match for Serena Williams in the final, losing in straight sets. If she could take inspiration from Schiavone's run to the final again at Roland Garros, maybe she could make another deep push this year.
Last Power Ranking: 6; WTA Ranking: 8
Last Four Tournaments: Roland Garros [R16], Madrid [Winner], Miami [R32], Indian Wells [R128]
Power Ranking Points: 488
Petra Kvitova had a very unusual preparation for the French Open. She only played one tour-level clay tournament in Madrid, and won! It was her biggest career title and she rose to a career high No. 9 world ranking shortly after.
Before her fourth round clash with Li Na at Roland Garros, many picked her to win that match. And for good reason. She has defeated the Chinese in the semifinals at Madrid, in straight sets. She was indeed leading 3-0 in the third set, but then Li caught fire and reeled off six straight games to win the match.
Still, this has been a far better effort for the Czech comparing to her first round exit last year. And with more experience and maturity, she is yet another young force to reckon with on the women's tour. She is currently enjoying her career high world ranking of No. 8.
Grass Success? Kvitova was a surprise semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, losing to eventual champion Serena Williams in two sets. She had two first round exits in previous years. As a top ten player, she will enjoy better seeding this year. Maybe it will be hard for her to duplicate her success from last season, but a fourth round or even quarterfinal is entirely possible.
Last Power Ranking: NR; WTA Ranking: 12
Last Four Tournaments: Roland Garros [Quarterfinalist], Rome [R64], Madrid [R64], Marbella [Semifinalist]
Power Ranking Points: 516
Though Svetlana Kuznetsova won the French Open two years ago, her quarterfinal run this year was a bit surprising, based on her recent form on clay. She made back-to-back first round exits in Rome and Madrid. She came from a set down to beat Hantuchova in the fourth round, the latter fresh off her straight set demolishing of world No. 1 Wozniacki. She finally ran out of gas against the home favorite Bartoli.
Kuznetsova is one of a few multiple major titlists on the women's tour, also winning the US Open in 2004. She was a fixture in the world top ten from 2006 to early 2010. But a shoulder injury at Miami last year cause her ranking to plunge. She has gradually worked her way back to top fifteen this year, and is only 200 points away from a return to the world top ten.
Grass Success? Kuznetsova has made to the quarterfinals at the All England Club on three occasions, most recently in 2007. She lost in the second round to Anastasia Rodionova last year. It should be a safe bet that she will do better this year, maybe fourth round.
Last Power Ranking: 10; WTA Ranking: 14
Last Four Tournaments: Roland Garros [Quarterfinalist], Rome [R16], Madrid [Quarterfinalist], Stuttgart [R16]
Power Ranking Points: 590
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova lost to the defending champion Schiavone at the quarterfinals stage in three sets. She was leading 6-1, 4-2, 40-0, when the feisty Italian made her comeback. Pavlyuchenkova was bidding to be the first teenager to reach the semifinal at Roland Garros since Ana Ivanovic in 2007. She remains the youngest, and the only teenager, in the world top 15.
Still her quarterfinal run at the French Open was the best performance for the young Russian at a Grand Slam so far in her career. She has been playing solid tennis this year, winning one title at Monterrey in March. She is at her career high world ranking of No. 14 this week, which she first achieved earlier this year after the Australian Open.
Grass Success? Pavlyuchenkova reached the third round at Wimbledon last year, her best result there to date. With better seeding and more experience this year, the Russian will have a good chance to go one round further.
Last Power Ranking: NR; WTA Ranking: 11
Last Four Tournaments: Roland Garros [Quarterfinalist], Strasbourg [Winner], Rome [R32], Madrid [R32]
Power Ranking Points: 627
Andrea Petkovic had the ideal preparation for the French Open, winning the clay event in Strasbourg before arriving in Paris. She defeated Maria Kirilenko in the fourth round in three sets, the latter coming off a straightforward win over Arantxa Rus, the Clijsters killer. But she was not able to get anything going against another Maria (Sharapova) in the quarterfinals, winning only three games.
2011 has been a breakout season for Petkovic. She has reached back-to-back quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the French Open, her best results at Grand Slams. From the "Petko Dance" in Melbourne to her "moonwalk" at Roland Garros, the German has been a delight to watch on the court. She is yet another girl who is enjoying a career high world ranking this week, sitting just outside of top ten at No. 11.
Grass Success? Petkovic is yet to win one single match at the All England Club. Due to injuries in her early career, the German was only able to play at Wimbledon for the first time last year, losing in the first round. But she did reach the final at 'S-Hertogenbosch, and it took Justin Henin three sets to deny her the title. At a much higher ranking now and with much more confidence, the German will surely be a dark horse candidate at Wimbledon this year.
Last Power Ranking: 5; WTA Ranking: 5
Last Four Tournaments: Roland Garros [Quarterfinalist], Rome [Quarterfinalist], Madrid [Finalist], Stuttgart [R32]
Power Ranking Points: 696
Something about Li Na's game must bother the talented Belarusian. Victoria Azarenka lost to the Chinese in the fourth round at the Australian Open and then again in the quarterfinals at the French Open, without winning a single set. She was the last of the top four seeds to fall at Roland Garros this year.
Azarenka hit a golden patch in late March and early April, winning 11 straight matches and back-to-back titles in Miami and Marbella. She reached another clay final in Madrid, losing to a red-hot Kvitova. However, she is yet to reach the semifinals stage at Grand Slams. A brilliant Li Na has pushed her down to the No. 5 spot in the world rankings, which will make her campaign at Wimbledon a touch harder.
Grass Success? Azarenka lost to Kvitova in the third round at Wimbledon last year. Surely she is not looking to have either Kvitova or Li in her quarter of the draw this year. As the No. 5 seed heading to the All England Club, anything short of a quarterfinal showing will be a disappointment for the Belarusian. And she will definitely look to reach her first semifinal at Wimbledon this year.
Last Power Ranking: NR; WTA Ranking: 9
Last Four Tournaments: Roland Garros [Semifinalist], Strasbourg [Finalist], Rome [R32], Madrid [R32]
Power Ranking Points: 1000
Marion Bartoli was the first French woman to reach the final four at the French Open since Mary Pierce made it to the final in 2005. It was truly a joy to see her bouncing on the court in front of the home crown, cheering her on after every point. But she finally ran out of gas against Schiavone in the semifinals, losing in straight sets. Her semifinal run at Roland Garros came as a bit of a surprise, especially since she had to retire in the title match against Petkovic at Strasbourg, citing a left thigh injury.
Bartoli is yet another player who has made to a Grand Slam final without tasting the glory. She reached the Wimbledon final in 2007, losing to Venus Williams in straight sets. She had caused a huge upset in the semifinals against Henin. She reached her career high world ranking of No. 9 later that year, which she was able to match this week.
Grass Success? As a world top ten player and a former finalist at Wimbledon, Bartoli will surely be a threat at the All England Club this year. And her deep run at her home Grand Slam would also have given her much confidence. Though her heavily taped left thigh is of some concern.
Last Power Ranking: 1; WTA Ranking: 6
Last Four Tournaments: Roland Garros [Semifinalist], Rome [Winner], Madrid [R16], Miami [Finalist]
Power Ranking Points: 1223
With all the top seeds tumbling, it looked as if this would be the year Maria Sharapova completes her career Grand Slam. But her serve completely deserted her in her semifinal match against Li, handing her Chinese conquerer the match on a double fault.
Before that disastrous match against Li, Sharapove has been playing the brand of tennis she was known before her should surgery. Amazingly, she has only played in seven tournaments so far this year, but she has done very well in all of them. And she has made a successful return to the world top ten. She reached the final in Miami, losing to an inform Azarenka. In her last tournament before the French Open, she won her biggest clay-court title at Rome without dropping a set, overcoming Azarenka, Wozniacki and Stosur in the final three rounds.
Grass Success? Sharapova will be a legitimate title contender at Wimbledon this year. She is one of a few players who has won multiple Grand Slams and can hold her nerves under enormous pressure. She won her first Grand Slam at the All England Club at the tender age of 17. With the shoulder problem out of the way and a new coaching team, the talented Russian is ready for more Grand Slam glory.
Last Power Ranking: 8; WTA Ranking: 7
Last Four Tournaments: Roland Garros [Finalist], Brussels [Semifinalist], Rome [Quarterfinalist], Madrid [R16]
Power Ranking Points: 1551
Francesca Schiavone had a historic run to the French Open title last year. It was quite an improbable victory especially considering that she had lost in the first round in the previous year. And quite amazingly, her opponent in the final was the same woman who had handed her that first round defeat a year ago, Samantha Stosur. She defied all odds to defeat the Australian in straight sets, 6-4, 7-6. She was the first Grand Slam champion from Italy.
Schiavone cracked the world top ten for the first time in her career following her success at Roland Garros last year, and has since been able to stay there. She reached a career high ranking of No. 4 after this year's Australian Open, where she won an epic battle against Kuznetsova in the fourth round. Lasting four hours and 44 minutes, it was the longest women's match in Grand Slam history.
As the defending champion at Roland Garros, Schiavone was considered one of several favorites to win the "most open" French Open in recent memories. But many doubted whether the Italian has what it takes to make another title run. After all, she has not won a single tournament after her triumph on the Parisian clay last season. But the feisty Italian summoned all her will to advance to her second French Open final, facing Li Na. And the final score was once again, 6-4, 7-6, but unfortunately for the Italian, she was on the losing side this time.
Grass Success? Schiavone crashed out in the first round at Wimbledon last year, partly due to the emotional drain following her historic French Open win two weeks ago. But she did reach the quarterfinals at the All England Club in 2009. Playing with lots of joy and confidence, the Italian veteran is more than capable of reaching the second week once again.
Last Power Ranking: 3; WTA Ranking: 4
Last Four Tournaments: Roland Garros [Winner], Rome [Semifinalist], Madrid [Semifinalist], Stuttgart [R16]
Power Ranking Points: 2197
Li Na opened her 2011 campaign with her first Premier title in Sydney, defeating Clijsters in the final in straight sets. She once again faced Clijsters in the final at the Australian Open, but lost in three sets after winning the first set. The Belgian's abundant experience in Grand Slam finals made the difference in the end. Still Li had an impressive run to the final, taking out Azarenka, Petkovic and Wozniacki along the way. And many were moved by her loving words for her husband and coach Jiang Shan at the trophy ceremony.
Li and Zheng Jie both were semifinalists at Melbourne last year, making it the first time that half of the final four at a Grand Slam were Chinese players. While Zheng had to miss the Australian Open this year due to a wrist injury, Li was able to go one step further, becoming the first Chinese, actually Asian, player to ever reach a Grand Slam final. She subsequently rose to world No. 9, becoming the first Chinese player to ever crack the top ten.
Li then went into a slump, much as she did last year, losing in the first rounds in the next four hard-court tournaments. Few would have predicted back then that she would be able to make yet more history during the clay-court season. After all, the Chinese was mainly known as a good hard-court player and had never won any title on clay.
After finally ending her losing streak in Stuttgart, Li made back-to-back semifinals at Madrid and Rome. A new face appeared in her team, Michael Mortensen, the Danish Fed Cup captain, her new coach. As Mortensen revealed recently, he worked on some techniques with Li especially her serves, but most importantly he told the Chinese player to play more relaxed tennis.
Li entered the French Open as the No. 6 seed, but was largely ignored as a legitimate title contender. She had a difficult start to the tournament, fighting off Barbara Zahlavova Strycova in three sets. Her next two matches were more straightforward, with easy wins over Silvia Soler-Espinosa and Sorana Cirstea. But starting from the fourth round, the seeding protection was off and she needed to beat four top ten players in a row to win the title.
Her fourth round match against Kvitova proved to be the hardest one, and for good reasons. She had lost to the young Czech in the semifinal match at Madrid, winning only four games. She quickly found herself one set down in their rematch, but was able to keep things even after winning the second set. But then again Kvitova raced out to a 3-0 advantage in the deciding set and it looked gloomy for Li. Her husband Jiang could not bear with the pressure any more and left the stand. That somehow got the Chinese woman going and she finished the match on a 6-0 run.
Li was once again the underdog, first against the young, talented and very promising Azarenka in the quarterfinals and then against the owner of three Grand Slam trophies, the beautiful and always-fighting Sharapova in the semifinals. Li somehow managed to handle the two big threats with minimum fuzz and moved into her second straight Grand Slam final.
Her final opponent was the defending champion Schiavone, who happened to defeat Li in the third round en route to her first major title last year. Because of that and the fact that Schiavone is a more proven clay-courter, Li was yet again considered the underdog. But Li's consistent serves and penetrating ground strokes proved too much to handle for the wily Italian, who was unable to employ her usual clay tactics with heavy top spins.
Li thus became the first Grand Slam champion from Asia, a truly historic achievement. She rose to world No. 4 this week, equaling the Asian mark set by Date-Krumm back in '90s. Since world No. 3 Zvonareva has much more points to defend in the second half of the season, Li is poised to become the highest ranked Asian player ever by the end of the year.
Grass Success? Li reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year, losing to eventual champion Serena Williams. If she could stay focused after her dream week at Roland Garros, she will for sure be a huge threat at the All England Club with great confidence, more experience and aura of a Grand Slam champion.