Li Na Li Na defeats Francesca Schiavone in the Women's Final to win the 2011 French Open, held at the Stade Roland Garros in Paris.

Like the two laconic syllables of her name, Li Na’s game has revolved around the twin concepts of efficiency and functionality when at its best.  In an era of flamboyant shot-makers, China’s Golden Flower often has found herself overshadowed by the towering personalities around her, in part because her competitive desire has burned more inwardly than outwardly.  Throughout her career, her streamlined style had recorded many a notable triumph over nearly every elite player of her generation.  Yet Li had won only a handful of titles, troubled by a fluctuating level of self-belief that appeared, disappeared, and reappeared without warning from one match to the next.

By no means did Li overcome that flaw in 2011, but she suppressed it long enough to change the course of not only her own life but perhaps the history of tennis in an entire continent.  Her year began explosively when she outlasted Clijsters to win the Sydney title and then brought that impetus into Melbourne the next week.  A semifinalist the previous year, she responded with aplomb to the pressure of defending that accomplishment.  Comfortably defeating the tenacious Azarenka and the rising Petkovic, Li arranged a rendezvous with world #1 Wozniacki at the same stage where she had lost a tightly contested, two-tiebreak encounter with Serena in 2010.  In one of the season’s most memorable matches, the Dane battled to within a point of victory as the Chinese challenger could not quite strike the balance between consistency and aggression.  Down match point, though, Li collected her nerve and fired a brazen forehand down the line for a winner.  Never again would she lose the momentum, although the match would wind through several more deuce games and service breaks while Wozniacki fought desperately for a victory that she needed as much as Li.  When the Chinese veteran jubilantly thrust both arms in the air after their three-set war of attrition, Asia could celebrate the first Grand Slam finalist in its history.

Still, Li left Melbourne with a bittersweet sense of achievement tinged with regret, for she had dominated an edgy Clijsters during the first set and a half of their final before faltering when the title drew near.  More inclined towards pessimism than optimism by nature, she struggled to recover from this disappointment in early exits from her next several tournaments, spurning multiple match points in two of her losses.  The impatience of tennis fans and especially her compatriots mounted during those months when it appeared that Li had gained no lasting confidence from her fortnight in Melbourne.  Nor did it appear that she had gained a sense of urgency to eke out as much as she could from the final stages of a career blighted by injury after injury.  Even when she reached the semifinals in Madrid and Rome, woeful losses on both occasions seemed to confirm these conclusions.

Less than a month later, of course, Li would brand herself irrevocably upon the tennis world with a triumph that represented a fitting reward for her years of struggle both on and off the court.  Tasked with a thorny draw at Roland Garros, she defeated four consecutive top-10 players in her last four matches—a feat accomplished by no champion of her generation.  Twice trailing Kvitova in the fourth round, Li refused to retreat into fatalism and maturely found ways to defuse her powerful but raw opponent.  When Sharapova threatened to wrest away control of their semifinal, the Chinese star summoned the courage to deny the Russian her date with history by playing each bone-crushing rally with a steeliness worthy of her foe.  Her own date with history arrived two days later against the dangerous Schiavone, renowned for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  During the first set and a half of their encounter, just as in the Melbourne final, Li had established herself as the superior player.  Just as in the Melbourne final, she stumbled within range of victory in a way that struck consternation into the hearts of her husband and the 100 million Chinese who watched the match.  Before long, Li found herself within two points of a third set while memories of Melbourne surely swirled through her head.  But Li did not succumb to the past or to her inner insecurities, courageously winning the next nine points to reach a place where no Asian tennis player had gone before.

Having claimed the first major title of her career, she became besieged by an avalanche of endorsement opportunities and promotional activities caused by her newfound celebrity.  To no surprise, then, Li spent the rest of 2011 adjusting to her elevated status, and one should not reproach her too harshly for losing her focus in the aftermath of her triumph.  A fiercely independent individual in a society that officially repudiates individualism, she unlocked a pathway for her compatriots to follow.  If her breakthrough inspires them, tennis may continue to expand beyond its traditional core in Europe, North America, and Australia, becoming a global sport in the fullest sense of the word.

Petra Kvitova Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic holds up the Championship trophy after winning her Ladies' final round match against Maria Sharapova of Russia on Day Twelve of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 2, 2011 in London, England.  Kvitova won 6-3 6-4.

She won in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end.  Similar to Li, Kvitova opened her season with a small title that propelled her to a promising (although less spectacular) fortnight in Melbourne, where she reached the quarterfinals.   Another small title and a victory over Clijsters later, the precocious Czech lefty had asserted herself as a woman to watch in a WTA where so many rising stars have stalled or crumbled in recent years.  Curbing that anticipation somewhat were her deflating losses in the spring’s remaining hard-court tournaments, which exposed her lack of tactical nuance and reluctance to adapt when her weapons deserted her.  As the clay season approached, observers couldn’t decide what to expect from Kvitova on the surface least suited to her thoroughly offense-oriented style.

Then came Madrid, a tournament where the altitude mitigates the demands of red clay and offers hope for irrepressible shot-makers.  Although the tenacious Cibulkova nearly derailed Kvitova in the quarterfinals, the Czech emerged strengthened by that adversity and blazed to the Premier Mandatory title with redoubled confidence.  The final against Azarenka proved one of the most compelling WTA matches of 2011, filled with magnificent winners by Kvitova and expert counterpunching by an opponent who forced her to earn every point and every game.  In addition to the champion’s composure during the first-set tiebreak and other key junctures, the most remarkable feature of this match surrounded her ability to snatch the racket from the hands of Azarenka, a fierce attacker herself.  But she could not unleash her own offense against first strikes as overwhelming as Kvitova’s serves, returns, and forehands.

Unfortunate to meet eventual champion Li Na in the fourth round of Roland Garros, the Czech lost no time in rebounding during the grass season.  After she reached the Eastbourne final, her hopes for Wimbledon ran high considering her accommodating draw and a surface hospitable to her game.  All the same, only the boldest observers expected her to win the title (although we did expect her to reach the final).  Reeling off hundreds of winners from both groundstroke wings throughout the fortnight, Kvitova often left opponents flat-footed or wrong-footed as the grass prevented them from reaching her penetrating blows.  Also effective at Wimbledon was her lefty serve, which separated her from most top women and opened up the court, allowing her to shorten points.  Yet Kvitova suffered sporadic lapses throughout the tournament that cost her sets in matches that she dominated, a product of her youth and unsteady focus.  That trend did not bode well when she prepared to face former champion Sharapova in the final, for the Russian had built her reputation upon an implacable intensity.  Perhaps daunted by the experience of playing for the Venus Rosewater Dish on Centre Court, Kvitova lost her serve immediately with a cluster of unforced errors.  After she broke back in the next game, though, she never would fall behind again.  A relentless assault of serves and forehands kept Sharapova at bay, pinned behind the baseline while Kvitova stepped inside it to target lines with spine-tingling abandon.  Serving for her maiden Slam title, the 21-year-old cracked an ace down the center on her first championship point.  Finally, a member of the WTA’s Generation Next had claimed one of the sport’s central prizes, snapping the stranglehold of the veterans.

Like the Roland Garros champion, the Wimbledon champion struggled with adjusting to her unexpected ascendancy.  Virtually invisible on the summer hard courts, she exited the US Open in the first round and continued to struggle with erratic form early in the fall.  A small title in the indoor Luxembourg tournament primed her for a final charge at the year-end championships, however, where she appeared for the first time.  Brushing aside world #1 Wozniacki as well as Zvonareva and Radwanska, Kvitova advanced through the round-robin stage without losing a set.  Able to strike winners from behind the baseline and redirect the ball with ease, she exploited the fast, low-bouncing surface much as she had Centre Court at Wimbledon.  The Czech then rallied from a one-set deficit against new US Open champion Stosur to win her semifinal.  Steadily gaining greater control over the match as it progressed, she suggested a greater ability to reverse an opponent’s momentum than she had shown for much of the season.  In yet another memorable clash with Azarenka, whom she had defeated at Wimbledon as well, Kvitova extended her mastery over this leading rival.  Despite letting a 5-0 lead in the first set evaporate, she never seemed in serious danger of losing the match even after the Belarussian extended it to a final set.  With these five consecutive victories over top-eight opponents, Kvitova may have settled into her elevated stature and adjusted her self-image from ambush artist to regular contender.  This outstanding culmination to her season launched a player who had started the year outside the top 30 to a career-high ranking of #2.

She may well move even higher in 2012.