I woke up this morning to learn I had watched a "thriller" last night (it was night in the USA) between Kim Clijsters and Li Na in the Australian Open round of 16. The last part of the third set was certainly thrilling, but the match, as a whole, was more bizarre and disappointing than anything else. The match had gotten a deservedly big buildup because Clijsters and Li played in last year's Australian Open final. And, in the final analysis, the content--if not the form--of the two matches was similar.
I went back to look at what I'd written about the 2011 final, and one of the things I said about Li in the second set was: "If I were the kind of person who used the expression 'This is when the wheels fell off,' I'd certainly describe flying wheels."
And there you are. The drama began in yesterday's match when, at 3-all in the first set, Clijsters rolled her left ankle. This was the bad ankle, and the defending champion was clearly in pain. She received some treatment, including a heavy wrap, and continued to play, but she looked undone by the incident. This is Clijsters' last Australian Open, she's the defending champion, and she had to feel like she had the worst luck in the world.
Li won the first set 6-4. In the second set, Clijsters had to resign herself to the fact that she couldn't really push off anymore to hit wide serves. Li went up 3-1 in the second, as Clijsters had trouble keeping the ball in the court. But one could also sense that anxious, tense Li Na--the one we saw in Melbourne last year and have seen so many times before--had emerged. Clijsters undoubtedly sensed it, too.
The set went to a tiebreak, and suddenly, Li had four match points. Clijsters saved three of them as the crowd went wild. Then, Clijsters surprised perhaps even herself by hitting a forehand drop shot. The speedy Li got there in plenty of time, but--for reasons that will remain a mystery--she hit the ball straight to Clijsters instead of whacking one of her famous crosscourt stingers to win the match. Clijsters returned with a lob, but Li was no longer speedy--she was frozen to the spot.
On to the third set. The defending champion quickly went up 4-0, as Li--still looking stunned by what had happened in the preceding set--couldn't do anything but make errors. At 4-1 Clijsters became a bundle of nerves and double-faulted, giving Li a break point. Li then picked up her game, and if you were watching, you had to wonder--is it really over for her? But it was. Clijsters took the last set 6-4 and won on her second match point.
The match was a microcosm of the two players' career problems: Clijsters tends to get injured, and Li tends to choke away matches. The challenge for Clijsters now is her ankle. It could get worse, and even if it doesn't, she'll probably still be restricted in her service game, which will certainly hurt her against quarterfinal opponent Caroline Wozniacki. For now, though, Aussie Kim is still in the mix.
Wozniacki reached the quarterfinals by defeating Jelena Jankovic 6-0, 7-5 . Also getting to the quarterfnals was Victoria Azarenka, who defeated Iveta Benesova 6-2, 6-2. Azarenka will play Agnieszka Radwanska, who easily defeated (6-1, 6-1) a lost-looking Julia Goerges.