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Rafa & Li Na left Paris with the big hardware

By Scott Riley,
Tennis Editor


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The almost-incomparable Rafael Nadal became the second man in the Open Era to capture six French Open titles, while Li Na electrified a nation by becoming the first-ever Chinese Grand Slam singles champion this past week in Paris.

Nadal secured major championship No. 10 by beating Roger Federer in the French Open final for a fourth time in six years. The Spanish great improved to 17-8 lifetime against the former No. 1 Federer (your 2009 French champ), including 6-2 in majors.

Spanish great Rafael Nadal captured his sixth French Open title in seven years.
In the history of tennis, only seven men now have won double-digit majors -- Federer (16), Pete Sampras (14), Roy Emerson (12), Rod Laver (11), Bjorn Borg (11), Bill Tilden (10) and Nadal (10) -- and Federer, Sampras, Borg and Nadal are the only ones to accomplish the feat in the Open Era, which began in 1968. Nadal also became the second-youngest man to win 10 majors, behind only the robot-like Borg.

Can Nadal catch Federer, with 16 majors?

Vamos, Rafa!

Li proved that January was no fluke by reaching her second straight Grand Slam final, which she won by straight-setting defending champ Francesca Schiavone this past Saturday at Roland Garros. Li became the first-ever Chinese player to reach a major final at the Australian Open just over four months ago.

Now she's a national hero in her populous homeland.

"She is now the pride of Asia," said Thai former ATP player Paradorn Srichaphan.

Li Na has reached the last two Grand Slam finals and is the first-ever Chinese player to win a major singles title.
As far as Nadal is concerned, the question has been out there for a while now, asking whether he is the greatest clay-court player of all-time. And it's certainly up for argument between himself and my tennis hero, Borg. Both players captured six titles in seven trips to Roland Garros, so we are comparing apples to apples at this point.

I say we still have to let things play out, i.e. let's see if Nadal can tally title No. 7 in the "City of Light." Then maybe you'd have to lean in his direction. We can sit here and argue depth on the tour now as compared to that in Borg's heyday of the 1970's, but I think that point is moot, as Nadal has beaten one of the all-time greats, if not THE all-time great in Federer in four finals, while Borg dusted fellow Hall-of-Fame stalwarts Guillermo Vilas (twice) and Ivan Lendl in some of his title tilts at RG.

Both Nadal and Borg have never lost in French Open finals, both going a perfect 6-0.

This discussion could go on for a while, but I think we'll end it here.

Back to Li.

The Chinese slugger has certainly blossomed late (by women's tennis standards) in her career, as she waited until she was 28 to land in her first Grand Slam final and 29 to capture a major championship. Heading into this season, Li had only ever won three titles on the WTA circuit, and they were relatively small ones at that, in Guangzhou (in her native China), Gold Coast (which is in Australia), and Birmingham (England, not Alabama).

Novak Djokovic lost out on a chance at reaching No. 1 and also lost a 43-match winning streak last week in Paris.
Li's career seemed to take off after she pulled out of China's government-run sports training program in 2008. She's trained independently since then.

So how did she do it? Win a major title at such a ripe-old age on the ladies' tour?

Well, it doesn't hurt that the upper echelon of women's tennis right now is not so upper echelon. The women ahead of Li in the rankings heading into the French didn't exactly have the world's greatest tennis resumes with the exception of Kim Clijsters, who headed to Paris with some rust, having not played in a month-and-a-half.

Clijsters aside, the No. 1 player on the women's side is Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki, who has yet to win a major championship.

The rest of the field in front of Li was Vera Zvonareva, a two-time Grand Slam runner-up last year who has never won a major; Victoria Azarenka, who has never even reached a major semifinal and Schiavone, who was the defending champion in Paris...but let's face it...can be had on any given day, true?

Sounds like it was a great opportunity for the hard-hitting sixth-seeded Li...and it was.

Roger Federer dropped to 0-4 against Rafael Nadal in French Open finals.
The women's field in Paris did also feature a seventh-seeded Maria Sharapova and last year's runner-up to Schiavone, Samantha Stosur, who exited the draw in the third round this year while Sharapova succumbed to Li in the semis. The former world No. 1 Sharapova was trying to capture that elusive French Open title, as the three-time major champ from Russia still needs Roland Garros to complete a rare career Grand Slam. I guess that will have to wait until at least next year.

So there you have it. The 2011 women's French Open title was practically laid out for a player like Li...specifically, I guess, Li. And she took advantage of it in the biggest of ways.

On the men's side, the top-four seeds -- Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Federer and Aussie Open runner-up Andy Murray -- all landed in the final four, which marked only the 12th time in the Open Era that has occurred. On the other hand, the women's draw was depleted with upset after upset.

The top-seeded Wozniacki, who's never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in Paris, was gone by the third round; the second-seeded two-time French Open runner-up Clijsters was dismissed in round two; a third-seeded Zvonareva was knocked out in the fourth round; a fourth-seeded Azarenka failed to get past the quarters; and Stosur, as I mentioned earlier, went by way of the upset in the round of 32.

Ouch!

Caroline Wozniacki is No. 1 in the world, but failed to get past the third round at Roland Garros.
Nadal, who turned 25 last Friday, repeated in Paris, having beaten two-time runner-up Robin Soderling in last year's finale, while Schiavone failed to become the first repeat women's champ since Justine Henin four years ago.

The great Nadal won four straight French titles from 2005-08. He has only ever lost once at Roland Garros, when Soderling shocked him in the fourth round there two years ago. Nadal took care of Soderling in last year's final, as well as this year's quarters in Paris.

One of the biggest stories in Paris was Federer's monster semifinal win over Djokovic, who headed to France with a seemingly-unstoppable 43-match winning streak which included a 41-0 record this year. By beating Djokovic last Friday, Federer prevented the Serb from becoming No. 1 for the first time in his career, reaching his first-ever French Open final and tying the record for the best-ever start to a year at 42-0, which was achieved by John McEnroe in 1984. McEnroe didn't lose in '84 until his arch-rival, Lendl, topped him in the French Open finale.

Djokovic had been a flawless 3-0 versus the 29-year-old Federer this season.

Kim Clijsters was unsuccessful in her bid for a third straight Grand Slam title.
The 24-year-old Djokovic is the still the reigning Aussie Open champ, but since he lost in Paris, that guarantees that no one will capture a Grand Slam this season. Same thing on the women's side, since the Aussie Open champ Clijsters failed in her attempt in France. Clijsters had won the last two majors, including last year's U.S. Open.

Djokovic was also trying to tie a men's record for consecutive titles, as the seven-time 2011 winner fell one short of McEnroe and Lendl, who share the mark by winning eight straight championships at one point.

Nadal, who by the way, is now 45-1 lifetime at Roland Garros, must still be the man to beat on the ATP World Tour, as he still currently holds three of the last four majors titles, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

The all-time Grand Slam king Federer fell to 0-5 lifetime against Nadal at the French, including setbacks in finals in 2006, 2007, 2008 and this year. The Spanish strongman also topped the super Swiss in the semifinals there in 2005.

Federer has now gone five Grand Slam events without a title, his longest such stretch since 2003.

Maria Sharapova still needs a French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam.
Note: Federer has played in every Grand Slam event since missing the 1999 U.S. Open as an 18-year-old. That's 46 straight majors!

Nadal and Federer were the only former champions in this year's men's French Open field, while the only former women's champs to suit up in Paris were Schiavone (lost in final), Svetlana Kuznetsova (2009 winner who lost in the quarterfinals) and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic (the 2008 champ and 2007 runner-up lost in the opening round).

The host nation still hasn't had a men's French Open winner since Yannick Noah in 1983, while the last French-born woman to title at RG was Francoise Durr back in 1967. Mary Pierce captured the title playing for France in 2000, but she was born in Canada.

The next Grand Slam event on the docket will be Wimbledon in two weeks. Nadal and Serena Williams are the reigning champions at the All England Club. Barring an unusual circumstance, Nadal will be there, but I'm guessing Williams won't be on hand, considering she has been sidelined by a series of health issues since capturing a fourth Wimbledon title 12 long months ago.

We'll have to wait and see on Serena.

Until then...work on your serve.

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.

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