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Steve Flink: Clijsters Steps Up Down Under

1/29/2011 12:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

At the end of a highly entertaining Australian Open, after a fortnight of intrigue and suspense, with so many learned observers looking at the women’s game with heightened interest, Kim Clijsters and Li Na met in the final round, knowing full well what precisely was at stake. The soon to be 29-year-old Li was the first Chinese player ever to appear in the singles final of a Grand Slam event, and the first Asian competitor to earn that distinction. She had already captured the hearts and minds of fans from every corner of the globe, establishing herself not only for extraordinary competiveness but also her delightful personality off the court. Now she wanted to find a way to succeed in her first final at a major tournament, and hoped to follow up on her unexpected victory over Clijsters a few weeks ago in the championship match at Sydney.

As for Clijsters, she was looking to maintain her brilliant run since coming out of retirement in the summer of 2009. She was determined to make good on another great opportunity. She was probably as eager to win on this auspicious occasion as she has ever been for a major. In the end, the sprightly, 27-year-old Belgian did not let herself or her supporters down, striking back purposefully to upend Li 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. In the last 17 major finals leading up to this one—ever since Amelie Mauresmo rallied to stop Justine Henin in the 2006 Wimbledon final—the winner of the first set had always gone on to record a victory. But Clijsters ably reversed that pattern, claiming her third Grand Slam title in the five majors she has played since her spirited comeback in August of 2009, garnering a fourth “Big Four” championship to move past Jennifer Capriati, Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport for career majors, coming through for the fourth time in eight final round appearances at the sport’s premier events.

It wasn’t easy. At the outset, Clijsters seemed composed and confident, while Li Na understandably was filled with apprehension and uncertainty. Clijsters opened the proceedings with an ace down the T, held at love, and then broke Li at love in the following game as the Chinese No. 1 double faulted to go down 0-30. Had Clijsters held her serve in the third game, she might well have taken this contest in straight sets. She stood at 2-0, 40-30, only one point away from a commanding 3-0 lead. But Li took the initiative here, approaching behind a well executed inside-in forehand approach. Clijsters was rushed into a netted forehand passing shot, and Li fashioned a service break to get her teeth into the match.

Li now started swinging freely and began exploiting her flat and punishing ground strokes off both sides, particularly her penetrating forehand. She held on at 15 for 2-2 before Clijsters took the fifth game on her serve. With Li serving at 2-3, 15-40, Clijsters had another chance to demonstrate her superiority. But with Clijsters allowing herself to get coaxed into too much of a slugging contest—playing entirely into Li’s hands—the Chinese competitor somehow salvaged that crucial game. Clijsters was plainly anxious in this stretch and unhappy with her game. Li Na held on for 3-3 and then broke her popular adversary at 15 in the following game. It was pace against pace in this stretch, and Li was striking the ball more cleanly. At 4-3, Li survived another strenuous game. Clijsters had a break point at 30-40 but Li got out of it as the seemingly uncomfortable Belgian drove a two-hander way over the baseline. Clijsters was pressing, and Li closed out that game when Kim was off the mark with an inside-out forehand off a high ball. Li advanced to 5-3, and then broke Clijsters yet again. At set point down, Clijsters approached forcefully on a deep crosscourt forehand, but Li countered with a spectacular running crosscourt forehand passing shot into the clear. Set to Li Na, 6-3.

The momentum was unmistakably on Li’s side of the net. She had won six of the last seven games to take that first set, and she was not backing down in the least, coming at Clijsters with the full weight of her shots and a belief that she could overpower and unsettle her illustrious adversary. In less than 40 minutes, Li was up a set. She had surprisingly been the better big point player, and that pattern continued well into the second set, which commenced with four consecutive service breaks. Although Li wasted a 40-15 lead on her serve in the opening game—dropping her serve after three deuces with a double fault—she won a deuce game from Clijsters to break back for 1-1. Li was broken again in the third game, but she drew even at 2-2 when she broke Clijsters in another three deuce game. Li then rallied from 15-40 to hold for 3-2.

While Li remained commanding off the ground, Clijsters was discombobulated. On her second break point in that fifth game, Clijsters was guilty of an abysmal backhand unforced error. Serving at 2-3 in that critical second set, Clijsters was fully aware that she could not afford to lose her serve again. She had already been broken three times in the opening set and twice in the second, but now she righted her ship in the nick of time. At long last, Clijsters started changing pace adroitly, and patiently waited for her openings before shifting from defense to offense. She held at 30 for 3-3, and broke again in the seventh game. Down break point, Li was set up perfectly for a backhand swing volley. She should have put it away easily crosscourt, but did not get nearly enough on the shot. Clijsters drove a two-handed pass into a wide open space down the line for a winner.

The entire complexion of the encounter had been altered decidedly. Clijsters was mixing up her game beautifully and taking away Li’s rhythm and confidence. No longer could the Chinese player automatically set the agenda in fast paced exchanges from the baseline. Clijsters was forcing her opponent to think, and Li was missing repeatedly, while losing her range almost completely. Clijsters was raising her level of aggression opportunistically, and she held at 30 for 5-3 by moving forward to intercept a floating return from Li. Clijsters struck an effective forehand swing volley to provoke an error from Li, and it was 5-3 for the soaring Belgian. When Li served to stay in the set, she had a game point but Clijsters made her run wide for a difficult forehand. Li drove the ball wide. Two points later, it was one set all.

The start of the third set was a virtual replication of the early stages of the opening set. The difference now, however, was that Clijsters was getting more speed and better location on her first serve, and winning points quickly. She held at love with four consecutive first serves for 1-0, and then surged to 0-40 in the next game. She had won seven points in a row to open the set. Li managed to get back to 30-40 but Clijsters took advantage of her fatigued opponent on the third break point. She sent a passing show down the line and made Li reach for the high backhand volley. Li missed it wide, and Clijsters was ahead 2-0.

Serving in the third game of the final set, Clijsters had her only anxious moments down the homestretch. At 30-15, she double faulted into the net. She rallied from 30-40 to deuce, only to double fault again, hitting this one long. Li got the break with a stinging backhand down the line. At 1-2, Li moved ahead 40-30 with a dazzling backhand down the line winner. She was a point away from a 2-2 deadlock, and the ensuing rally was played on Li’s terms, featuring big hitting on both sides of the net. But Li missed a forehand down the line into the net tape. That point was immensely important for Clijsters. Li then double faulted, and followed with an unforced error off the backhand, driving the ball wide. On went Clijsters to 3-1, and now there was no halting her.

The Belgian held at love for 4-1 as Li made four glaring unforced errors off the forehand. Clijsters surely knew now that she was not going to lose. Li, however, did not surrender tamely. She held on for 2-4 from 15-30 before Clijsters held at 15 for 5-2. Li gamely held one more time, but Clijsters composed herself admirably when she served for the match at 5-3. She opened that game with a forehand down the line winner off a hanging return, and followed with a forehand crosscourt winner for 30-0. Li then was forced into a backhand down the line error, and Clijsters held at love as Li missed an inside-out forehand. The title belonged to Clijsters, and no one could say she did not deserve it.

It was about time that the Belgian won a major outside of New York. She was long overdue to succeed on another big stage, and now she has done just that. She has collected two Grand Slam championships in a row for the first time in her distinguished career, and can now set her sights on Roland Garros, where she reached her first major final back in 2001. On that occasion, Clijsters was ever so close to toppling the heavily favored Jennifer Capriati before losing 1-6, 6-4, 12-10. Two years later, Clijsters was runner-up to Justine Henin in the finals of Roland Garros, and Henin stopped her again in the final of the U.S. Open. In late January of 2004, Henin defeated Clijsters in the final of the Australian Open. All through that impressive yet frustrating stretch, Clijsters seemed destined to fall narrowly short when it counted. She had lost her first four Grand Slam tournament finals.

But look what has happened since. Before she went into retirement, Clijsters captured the 2005 U.S. Open. She was victorious again at the 2009 and 2010 U.S. Opens. And now she is the Australian Open champion. After four consecutive final round losses at the majors, Clijsters has recorded four straight victories in title round matches at the Grand Slam events. That is no small thing; it is a remarkable turnaround for a player who has claimed three of those championships as a proud wife and mother. To be sure, her task was made less daunting by the absence of Serena Williams, the Australian Open winner in five of the previous eight years.

The fact remains that Clijsters has become a more complete professional, a tougher and more resilient competitor, a woman with a growing awareness of her capabilities, and a champion in the best sense of the word. After her impressive comeback to oust Li Na in Melbourne, Clijsters regaled the crowd with her innate charm and uncommon decency. Watching it all on television, it occurred to me that women’s tennis could do no better than to have Kim Clijsters add to her swiftly growing collection of prestigious prizes. She is a terrific athlete, a gracious individual, and a role model for working mothers all over the world. She says this could be her last full year on the WTA Tour before she extends her family, but the hope here is that she remains in the forefront of the game considerably longer than that.

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