Clijsters solidifies Slam stranglehold
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Don't call Kim Clijsters a one-major master.
History was ready to be made at the Australian Open on Saturday night when Li Na tried to become the first Asian woman to win a Grand Slam singles title.
But it was Clijsters who prevailed and finally ended her Grand Slam drought outside of New York with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 win.
The question now, though, is whether the title will have a detrimental effect in speeding up the Belgian's plans to have another child and quit for good. In the past two months, she has fluctuated when asked how long she intends to keep going. Who knows what will happen next? At a time of change in the women's game, the WTA can ill afford to lose her.
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"I do enjoy this win, especially here in Australia," said Clijsters, dubbed "Aussie Kim" for dating Lleyton Hewitt years ago. "It's been a country where I've always loved coming to, and where I've always been very well-received."
Clijsters moved into a tie for third place in hard-court titles with another fan favorite, Chris Evert.
"She's a four-Slam wonder and counting," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. "She may become the best hard-court player of this era, and someone who is growing in stature with her mental toughness."
Li's appearance in the final was already enough to boost tennis's profile back home in China. She was being mentioned in the same breath as the adored duo of NBA stalwart Yao Ming and Olympic gold medalist hurdler Liu Xiang, quite an achievement for a female athlete.
Just imagine what a victory would have done. About 1 percent of China's population currently plays tennis, and while that might not sound like much, one percent of 1.3 billion equals 13 million.
Although an increase is now expected, the boom may not materialize after Li's glorious journey in Melbourne was ended in a slugfest that matched Andy Murray's win over David Ferrer in Friday's men's semifinal.
"I'm not sure how big the news is right now in China," said Li, who made a motion that implied it wasn't much.
Clijsters has been nearly invincible in finals since coming out of retirement, improving to 7-1. She paid Li back for a defeat at the Sydney International two weeks ago.
"Sydney was OK, but she didn't have the same focus," said Clijsters' coach, Wim Fissette. "This is different. This is what counts."
Clijsters' newfound mental toughness was there for all to witness. Remember, she was the overwhelming favorite to win the crown, especially in the absence of two-time defending champion Serena Williams. One of the leading contenders 12 months ago, Clijsters was pummeled 6-0, 6-1 by Nadia Petrova in the third round.
It wasn't looking good for Clijsters when Li captured the opening set -- the first one Clijsters dropped this fortnight.
Li beat Clijsters at her own game, crunching balls, using angles and delivering timely passing shots. The 28-year-old, who fell to 11-1 this season, even used drop shots to keep Clijsters off balance, a rarity. Finesse and the ninth seed have never really mixed.
All this after Clijsters won the opening eight points. Indeed, destiny appeared to be with Li, who saved a match point in the semifinals against world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
"She was playing really, really well, probably the best that she played against me," Clijsters said.
Both players had limited success early on serve, more an indication of the returning quality on display than anything else. Clijsters did her trademark splits from the baseline -- something she'd rather avoid because it doesn't do wonders for her body -- at least half a dozen times in the first set and a half, probably more than in her previous six matches combined. It was an indication of the pressure she faced.
Gradually, Clijsters began to dictate and mixed it up, taking Li out of her rhythm. Li was suddenly unable to cope with high balls, defensive lobs and missed a number of drive volleys. When Clijsters won the opening 10 points of the third, this time there was no recovery. Li's unforced error count rose, ending at 40, coupled with 24 winners. Clijsters finished with 22 winners and 26 unforced.
Fissette lauded Clijsters' versatility.
"When she came [out of retirement], we were talking about how she wanted to develop her game and improve it," Fissette said. "We asked her to be more aggressive, because at the end of her [first] career, she was a defensive player. She still is at certain moments, and today she needed to be. But in most matches, she's very aggressive. There's a big difference."
Experience didn't hurt
Li's concentration wavered. She was put off by fans calling "out," flash photography and even asked the chair umpire to tell Chinese spectators at Rod Laver Arena not to tell her how to play. A fair few Chinese fans were in the stands, neutralized by Clijsters' backers.
"I don't know why after I came to the final so many Chinese coaches were coaching me on the court," Li said. "I mean, during the match, many Chinese like of course, the fans, they want me to win this match. Maybe they were excited."
Let's hope Li, who'll take some time off to enjoy the Chinese New Year, can continue to improve. She's been the tournament darling.
She cracked fans up by saying husband and coach Jiang Shan snored and that prize money was the motivation for downing Wozniacki, and she told anyone who listened that hubby controlled the credit card, which she didn't like.
Behind the humor, though, was an uplifting tale. Li initially took up badminton, perhaps the sport of choice in China, only shifting to tennis because a coach told her she wasn't good enough.
She dealt with major injuries in 2007, '08 and '09, and feuded with her federation, eventually successful in her wish to keep more of her prize money.
But it was not meant to be this time around.
With the injuries of the Williams sisters, compatriot Justine Henin's sudden retirement and the inability of Wozniacki to break through, Clijsters has solidified her stranglehold on the women's game.
"She's the player most equipped to take advantage of Serena being out, and not many other players playing now feel comfortable stepping up at the biggest moments," Shriver said.
Let's just hope she sticks around for a while.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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