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Li's feat of clay is major milestone for Asia game

First Grand Slam title crowns China's emergence as a world tennis force

It began less than 10 years ago with an attempt to improve China's haul of Olympic medals and it has reached a peak with the country's first Grand Slam singles title.

The world's most populous nation had never made an impact in what was seen as a quintessentially western sport until the 2008 Games were awarded to Beijing, but a series of subsequent successes reached a new high here yesterday as Li Na won the French Open. The 29-year-old from Wuhan, who becomes the fifth oldest first-time Grand Slam singles champion in the Open era and the first from Asia, beat Francesca Schiavone, last year's champion, 6-4 7-6.

Less than six months ago Li suffered the disappointment of losing to Kim Clijsters in her first Grand Slam final at the Australian Open. Having taken the tough decision to replace her husband, Jiang Shan, as coach with the Dane, Michael Mortensen, Li then put her post-Melbourne slump behind her and started to enjoy sustained success on clay for the first time in her career.

She has done it the hard way here. On her way to the final Li beat Petra Kvitova, a coming force in the game, Victoria Azarenka, who was the favourite to win the title, and Maria Sharapova, who had been playing the best clay-court tennis of her career.

In Schiavone, Li faced an opponent who can master this surface better than any other woman. The 30-year-old Italian had recaptured her form of last year en route to the final but had no answer to the all-round excellence of Li's game. The Chinese may have lacked the subtlety of the Italian, but her tally of 31 winners – Schiavone made just 12 – told everything about her power and accuracy.

Schiavone won only five points against Li's serve in the first set and failed to disrupt her opponent's rhythm with her spins and variations of pace. Li broke in the first game of the second set and saved a break point with an ace to go 2-0 up, but Schiavone fought back. The Italian broke to level the set at 4-4, but was overwhelmed in the tie-break, losing it 7-0.

"Melbourne was the first time I'd reached a Grand Slam final," Li said afterwards. "Of course I didn't have any experience of this before. When you've been in one final already, you know what to do next time."

Li has been a part of her country's emergence as a tennis force from the start. She became the first Chinese to win a tour singles title in 2004, the year when Sun Tiantian and Li Ting won China's first Olympic gold medal in the sport in the women's doubles in Athens.

Her subsequent triumphs, however, have been largely down to her own efforts rather than those of the Chinesetennis authorities, who put major investment into the sport but wanted to do things their own way.

Li actually gave up the sport for two years after the national federation insisted that she should concentrate on doubles, in the belief that it was an easier route to Olympic success. When rules were relaxed, allowing Chinese players to operate outside the federation's regime and keep their own prize money, she was one of the first to take advantage.

"When I was youngI wanted to be a Grand Slam champion," Li said.

"Some people say I'm getting old now, but for the old woman a dream has come true. At 6-0 in the tie-break, I was thinking: 'OK, don't do anything stupid.' I've had many match points before and gone on to lose the match."