By Bill Simons
LI NA—ALTERING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD: “Andy Murray,” noted writer Simon Barnes, “knows all about being a British success when he wins and a Scottish failure when he loses—well, Li Na is a national darling when she wins … But [when] she loses, she is a bad-tempered, non-patriot with a tattoo. Li takes all this in her stride.”
But she doesn’t exactly take her losses in stride. Tears can flow, anger can flash. This year, the woman with the brief name—20 letters shorter than that of her third-round opponent , Barbora Zahlavova Strycova—had as brief a run as possible at Roland Garros, losing in the first round. And today, despite her wondrous Aussie Open triumph, she got bounced by the Czech Zahlavova Strycova, losing 7-6(5), 7-6(5) .
On one level, the loss made no sense at all. Twice before, Na has beaten Zahlavova Strycova. Twice, she’s won Grand Slams (at the 2011 French Open and this year’s Aussie) She was seeded No. 2.
Na is the first Chinese player to win a Slam, she’s No. 1 when it comes to tennis players recently making the cover of Time Magazine, and of course, she outdistances everyone in pro tennis when it comes to laughter. She’s the queen of comedy. But while Na cracks everyone up, she often cracks at Slams. Unfortunately, she’s also No. 1 when it comes to elite champions who are completely erratic.
There always seems to be a twist with this most-interesting lady. At last year’s Wimbledon, against Agnieszka Radwanska, she she failed to challenge a set point call that would have gone her way and perhaps given a totally different complexion to the match and the entire tournament. Early on her path to victory at this year’s Aussie Open, she should have been eliminated by Lucie Safarova, but the Czech failed by a whisker on a routine forehand to an open court.
Before Wimbledon, Na opted not to play any grass court warmup tourneys, a decision she fretted over today. And in her match on Court 1, she got—if we can say this—a kind of death row reprieve when, after seemingly losing the match, her successful Hawkeye challenge kept the match alive. But, she blew it. She then double faulted.
Say what you will, here was another twist of fate.
Still nothing, including her dreary second-round loss today, will change the monumental impact of a beautiful soul who, more than any other, has inspired Asians to get into tennis while revealing much to Westerners about mainland China and the supposedly inscrutable East.
London Times writer Barnes, who lived in a Chinese village for four years, put it in perspective, noting, “There is an ancient principle that sport doesn’t build character, sport reveals character. But Chinese athletes have often been rather grudging about how much they reveal, or are allowed to reveal. They are frequently presented as pliant and obedient members of a perfectly-honed state system, and if they don’t say something perfectly bland, their interpreter will. (Moral: learn Mandarin.)”
Barnes then recalled an incident at the Olympics when “a Chinese swimmer was asked if she ever found her life hard, and if she missed her parents. She spoke with animation for a good minute, whereupon all eyes turned to the interpreter. He said: ‘No.'”
As for Na, Barnes noted that her “entire career has been a contest between authority and independence: between people telling her who to be and her own views … In a nation noted for conformity, she has conformed only to herself … She is not a rebel for the love of rebellion, but someone who believes that being true to yourself is a higher duty than fitting in.
All this is great stuff, no matter where it comes from: that it comes from China alters our understanding of the world. That’s the sort of thing sport can do: decades of prejudice and stereotyping vanish in a series of jet-powered forehands and an unexpected sense of humor … She is one of those portal figures … showing Chinese people something of the ways of the West and the value that is placed on individuality, and allowing us in the West to see a Chinese person as an athlete whose brilliance is the clear expression of her personality.”
“I’LL HAVE WHAT SHE’S HAVING” AND OTHER USELESS THEORIES: Okay, we concede that—aside from being wildly successful tall and beautiful blondes—there is absolutely no connection between actress Meg Ryan and Maria Sharapova. Still, we felt Sharapova’s recent World Cup commentary was about as close as staid old Wimbledon will get to a “I’ll have what she’s having” moment.
Let us explain our half-baked theory. In the classic movie When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal insists no woman has faked an orgasm with him. After Ryan loudly and hilariously disabuses him of that notion—in a restaurant, no less—a nearby curious customer says, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Well, here in London—and work with us, puh-leez—while discussing soccer, Sharapova admitted she doesn’t exactly track the World Cup. But then she added that she has to at least follow some of the action, because her support team is from so many different places. “I’m kind of supporting a lot of countries because my team is from all over the world,” said the Russian-American. “On any given day, sometimes I have to pretend like I’m supporting them just to be nice. They usually know when I’m faking it.”
FORGET “ALL THAT SAFETY EQUIPMENT”: The BBC noted that American soccer player Fabian Johnson looked like he was playing American football, “but without all that silly safety equipment.”
HARD TAKES ON SOFT BRITS AND THE NEED TO MOVE AWAY FROM “MOLLYCODDLING THE ENORMOUS EXPENDITURE”: England’s Heather Watson said she knew of British players who “choose when to work,” whose coaches “let them slip and get away with it.” Departing Lawn Tennis Association coach Julien Hoferlin contended that some players were “too spoiled to succeed … [and] very few junior players had been able to make the leap into the senior game,” adding that, despite resources, there isn’t an “exceptional tennis culture” in Britain.
British player Daniel Smethurst concurred, saying that some players were “definitely spoilt.”
Ross Hutchins said the nation has “underachieved,” and Judy Murray observed that British juniors live in a “comfort zone”. She added that she would encourage a move away from “mollycoddling of the enormous expenditure.”
OMG: You have been in England for just over two days, and you find yourself using the word overcooked.
FIRST CLASS FRENCH SNIT: After losing in the first round, Benoit Paire confided, “Simply, I hate Wimbledon … The atmosphere displeases me greatly, and I am glad to leave as soon as possible.” The French wild child also said, “Here, all they like is giving fines, Maybe thanks to us they will be able to fix the courts.”
FABIO OH-NO: Italy’s charismatic Fabio Fognini was fined $27,500 after informing ump Wayne McEwen, “[I want to] smash my racket in your head” … Then, after losing to 6′ 8″ Kevin Anderson, the 5′ 10″ Italian remarked, “If I were three inches taller, I could beat him [while] smoking a cigar.”
VALIANT VENUS DOESN’T QUIT, BUT KVITOVA PREVAILS: The third-round match between five-time champ Venus Williams and 2011 champ Petra Kvitova delivered the kind of high-quality “Big Babe” tennis more often associated with the final rounds of a Slam. Both players had impressive stats, and there were only two breaks of serve in Kvitova’s 5-7, 7-6(2), 7-5 victory. The first time Venus was broken also proved to be the final, fatal one in an epic that adds to the list of painful, razor’s edge three-set Slam losses by the 33-year-old in this chapter of her career.
CZECH PLEASE: Paging Martina Navratilova. Going into the fourth round, four of eight players in the bottom half of the women’s draw hail from the Czech Republic: Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, Li Na’s conqueror Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, and qualifier Tereza Smitkova, who lost a grass match to a player ranked outside of the top 1000 only a few weeks ago.
“WANG” IN DOUBT, SUPPRESS YOUR BAD PUNS? While reflecting on the play of Jimmy Wang, a BBC announcer said, “His approach shots were so tame that I think he came to net on a Wang and a prayer.”
“This ball will have to go to the hospital whatever happens.”—BBC Radio, after a blistering Venus Williams–Petra Kvitova rally.
“It was a shame someone had to lose, and more of a shame that it had to be me.” Venus, after losing to Kvitova.
“Everyone just kind of glows in white.”—Venus, when asked about the traditional dress guidelines at Wimbledon.
“I was 17, I thought I knew everything, but I knew nothing.”—Andrea Petkovic
“[He’s] an outsize burr in Nadal’s ambitions.” John Branch, on Lukas Rosol.
MOST USELESS STAT OF THE FORTNIGHT: After Lukas Rosol tipped over one of those water bottles Rafa Nadal loves to precisely line up with such obsessive care, it was noted that Rafa’s opponents are 0-2 after intentionally tipping over one of his bottles.
WATER ON THE BRAIN: Speaking of bottled water, John Holmes of Matlock, Derbys wrote the Daily Mail that “Wimbledon is quintessentially English (except for the bottled water, which is quintessentially French).”
FATHER FED A NAPPY CAMPER
ENGLAND STILL RULES AT PEA-SHOOTING
SCANDAL MADE ME BETTER SAYS WILD CHILD OF BRITISH TENNIS
THE TENNIS GIRLS WHO’VE GOT BALLS
VOLLEY ROGER PLANS TO MIX IT UP
WIMBLEDON WOMEN “FORCED TO PLAY BRALESS”
NOVAK’S CLOWN IS NO JOKE
CAN ANYONE STOP RUTHLESS MARIA AND RUNAWAY SERENA?
DIMITROV SERVING NOTICE THAT HE’S MORE THAN MR. SHARAPOVA
RAFA HAS LUCK OF A CHAMP
RAFA: I ROSOL TO OCCASION
AT WIMBLEDON, IT’S HARD TO TELL A TENNIS PLAYER FROM A CHEESE
WATCH NADAL GO WHAM BAM PAST ROSOL TODAY
DON’T READ THIS, GRIGOR, BUT I’D LOVE TO COACH YOU
GAME, WET, AND MATCH
NO KIDDING: A reporter said to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, “You must be looking forward to having two days off after playing for five straight days on court.”
SCARE OF THE FORTNIGHT: Novak Djokovic painfully falling on his shoulder during his win over Gilles Simon.
RECORD BOOK: Lleyton Hewitt broke the Open Era record for the most 5-set matches played at Grand Slams. With his 42nd five-set match, he surpassed previous record-holder Andre Agassi.