A little wobbly on the dismount but boy did she nail the landing.
No one could have seen this happening five years ago. Back then during the supposed "prime" of her career (24ish is prime, right?) Na Li was a top 30 player and, let's be honest, quite an invisible one. She seemed destined for a Vesnina-like career: Always around, capable of pulling off a mild upset once in a while, but will probably make the chunk of her change off doubles. A clean hitter off the ground who seemed haunted by constant injury (stress fracture to the rib, knee surgery, sprains and strains left and right) she seemed like a good tennis player. Just not one destined for greatness.
And then came the Beijing Olympics. Under immense pressure on home soil, she dismissed Sveta and Venus and narrowly lost to Dinara. Do people remember that she played the bronze medal match against Bepa? She totally did. She would score wins over #1 ranked Serena that year, along with wins over JJ and Vika.
As the wins came so did the airtime, and this one was a ready for primetime player. The fact that she spoke her mind and was comfortable in her own skin caused everyone to sit up and take notice. Her run in Beijing was fucking awesome and to see her fire back at the Chinese fans, shoot glares, scream at herself, and bitch-face like a mofo totally made me a fan. This woman wears it on her sleeve. She accepts no bullshit and she gives no bullshit. There's a reason why Nike made shirts for her team that read "Be Yourself".
But sometimes being yourself means knowing that you're destined for something more. It means leaving your comfort zone and stepping out, knowing that you're good enough, great enough even, to be more than you are being allowed to be. Nails knew that. That's why she broke away from the Chinese Tennis Federation and demanded more autonomy and control over her training, schedule, and coaching. Her declaration of independence worked. She had the best results of her career once she kicked the federation to the curb.
It takes a lot of confidence and courage to make the moves she's made. After pulling an Andy Murray and failing to win a single match for months, there were whispers that Nails might retire. Huh? No. Instead, she "fires" her husband as her coach and brings on Michael Mortensen right before Madrid. He coached Caro as a junior. RUH ROH. WHATCHA THINKIN', NAILS?
Well what she's thinkin' is that this guy is a damn fine coach. After going months winless, she makes the semis of Madrid, Rome, and now she's the first Asian Grand Slam singles champ in the history of yellow fuzzy balls. How is this guy not Caro's coach? YOU DUMB, PIOTR.
It sure as hell wasn't easy, though Nails sure made it look that way for a set and a half. She was on fire, though not in a "I'm playing out of my mind" kind of way. She was cracking that forehand and keeping Frank on the run, opening up the court with ease. The Legendary Francesca Schiavone looked otherwise ordinary today. Nails was taking the ball early from both wings and left Frank with little time on her strokes. Leave it short? Boom. Na nails a winner. Much to the surprise to many (read: ME) Nails was making this look routine and pictures of her goofily hoisting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen seemed inevitable.
And then, up a break at 4-2, Nails decided to stop moving her feet. All of a sudden she couldn't find the court and balls that were hit deep and flat earlier in the match were landing short. It was now Frank who was hitting winners and Nails was left screaming and glaring at her box. This was starting to look like another nervous collapse for would-be first time champ. And it was horrible.
As if that weren't enough drama, of course, OF COURSE, there had to be some line calling drama. With Nails serving at deuce at 5-6, Louise Engzell overuled a call that would have given Frank set point. Instead, it was "Advantage Madame Li". I mean, obviously Louise overruled the call so she could say "Advantage Madame Li". Who wouldn't? I'd run over a small child if it meant I got to say "Advantage Madame Li". French TV ran Hawkeye and showed the ball to be out, meaning Frank was right. Then again, Hawkeye isn't right 100% of the time. I just think it's a shame that Louise didn't just call for a replay of the point.
The call clearly disrupted Frank. She didn't win a point for the rest of the match. Nails converted game point, and then won the tiebreak 7-0. A really rough way for Frank to go down, but all credit to Nails. She really looked like she had her own hands around her neck late in that second set but she was able to steady herself and play some solid tennis in that last game and tiebreaker to clinch the title. NAILS.
This was one hell of a statement. If Na doesn't have the balls to make the decisions that she's made over the last three years, this day doesn't come. She's just another face in the crowd, a challenger, not a champion. But she got here, she arrived to this day, to this moment by being unapologetically true to herself.
I don't know about you, but that inspires the shit out of me. You're not a role model because you're holding a trophy, Nails. You're a role model because...well...
Because you're Nails. Nothing more. Nothing less.
(Pics: Getty, Reuters, AP)