This fortnight in Paris much of the talk surrounded around these new-fangled Babolat balls: they’re harder, they play faster, and they’re a bit punchier (now that’s a ball I could get with). Inevitably, this led to discussions about the democratization, if you will, of the court surfaces. Hard courts and grass are slowing down while the clay is getting sped up, the days of the “specialist” are over and on and on. So, as I thought about the ladies’ final pitting the powerful Li Na against the crafty Francesca Schiavone it occurred to me that this match could have the future written all over it. Would the old-school stylings of the Italian survive the clean, flat ball striking of this new-school clay court tennis? If Li’s 6-4, 7-6 (0) win is any indication, the future is now.
There aren’t many like Fran left in the ladies’ game especially with the likes of Justine Henin retired again. And with the red clay playing more like a hard court now those ballers with their slices and spins could find it a difficult place to make their magic (incidentally, with all the sliding on hard courts maybe we should’ve seen this coming). During the final you could see Fran struggling to produce her long-flowing strokes; she barely had time to set up at times with a Li return or groundie approaching mach 80.
But the Chinese baller wasn’t going to win on hard court tennis alone. In fact, she showed off her clay court stride, sliding into short balls, out to wide balls and onto her ass after match point like she had grown up on the stuff. Even she admitted people might have to start seeing her in a different way after defeating Victoria Azarenka to reach the final four:
"After I won the match, I was feeling, 'Wow! I can play in the semis at Roland Garros'. I never thought about that before. So many people think I'm not so good on a clay court, but I think now they should change their minds a little bit."Uh, I think they already have, girl.
So, yes, the future. We won’t know if this new-school clay style is only of this moment or a benchmark for future Roland Garros champs. It’s a wait-and-see kinda deal. But this 29-year old wisecracking Chinese rebel, and not a wide-eyed, fresh faced prodigy, is almost certainly the embodiment of the future. Li, with the Couple Suzanne Lenglen by her side, has surely given hope to girls (and perhaps boys) around the world who may see their future in her eyes. It’s something very personal for me being of Asian descent. I knew watching her fall on her back in obvious and well-deserved ecstasy after earning her first Grand Slam title that it was, is and will be possible.
Check out Nike's tribute to the newly crowned Roland Garros champ after the jump.
[Photo(s): Reuters, Nike]