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Why it's Li Na's time to win it all

6/3/2011

PARIS -- This French Open has been a tournament full of surprises on the WTA side of the fence, perhaps none more so than the successful return of 30-year-old defending champion Francesca Schiavone to the trophy presentation round, as either winner or runner-up on Saturday.

She'll play 29-year-old Li Na in a matchup of the oldest finalists in 25 years, since Chris Evert beat Martina Navratilova in 1986. That's appropriate, because comparing the two finalists to those grand dames of women's tennis is a nice prism through which to view this final.

Li's classic game is comparable to the one that earned Evert a whopping 18 Grand Slam singles titles. Li will be lucky to retire with one or two, but never mind -- her compact, clean game rests on the same pillars as did Evert's. The most solid of those pillars, for both women, was the two-handed backhand. Their forehands are similar, solid but slightly more prone to misfire, especially under pressure.

When it comes to the serve, Li has Evert beat by a country mile. And that serve has been instrumental in Li's success here. It could spell the difference in the final, because Schiavone's aggressive game suffers dramatically if you can push her back off the baseline by taking control of the rallies.

If Li were a match for Evert in the mental department, she probably would have won the Australian Open. She lost it partly because she took her eyes off the proverbial ball and let some of the ambient conditions distract her. She caved under the pressure -- something Evert rarely did, even early in her career.

But Li appears to have learned her lesson Down Under and has been highly focused and calm in her three wins over powerful, aggressive players who appear to be nearly twice her size: Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.

Schiavone may not play like Navratilova, the hard-charging, athletic paragon of the all but extinct serve-and-volley game. But the women are cut from the same cloth. Schiavone's one-handed backhand is just as versatile Navratilova's was. Schiavone can hit flat, topspin or slice. Navratilova's forehand was sometimes shaky, but Schiavone's is solid, and is hit with enough topspin to give her great control.

Like her predecessor, Schiavone is aggressive and always looking to get to the net, although not necessarily right behind her serve -- even Navratilova wasn't crazy enough to play serve-and-volley on every point on slow red clay. The women share great touch, or feel, and Navratilova pioneered the fitness trend that has encouraged and enabled a 30-year-old like Schiavone to contend for major titles.

So 25 years after Evert and Navratilova last squared off here, we have another pair of seasoned veterans with contrasting styles vying for the title. In 1986, Evert lost the first set, 6-1, and won the next two, both 6-3. We could have another three-setter this year, and if you remember the extent to which Evert owned Navratilova on clay, you'll understand why I'm picking Li to take the title.

Evolution has ensured that compared to Evert, Li would be an improved model in every department but the least easily quantified, the mind. But the way Li has won her past three matches against imposing players has convinced me that she can get it done. And her flat, precise game ought to keep Schiavone at bay and wear her down -- unless Schiavone has a career day when it comes to clocking stone-cold winners.

Schiavone undoubtedly has some kind of magic going here in Paris, and it's hard to buck the tide of the supernatural. She's acted and spoken as if she's destined to win this thing again, much to the amazement of everyone, including those who characterized her win here last year as a delightful, once-in-a-generation fluke. And though nobody likes to see a dream come crashing down, Schiavone's dream already came true, in 2010. It's Li's time now.