Saturday, January 29, 2011

You can call her her Aussie can call her 2011 Australian Open women's champion!

For the first set of her 2011 Australian Open championship match again 9th seed Li Na, Kim Clijsters made the mistake of getting into a hitting contest with China's Big Sister Na. Li likes those contests--they're her bread and butter--and she tends to win them. And even though Li looked very tight in the first couple of games and was broken right away, she soon dictated a hitting rhythm after she gained control of her forehand. Serving at 2-3, Li broke the 3rd seed, then held, though Clijsters did see a break point in Li's service game. Now up 5-3, Li took advantage of a second break point by hitting what can be referred to only as a ridiculously good forehand winner.

After the second set got rolling, it became obvious that Clijsters had learned her lesson with regard to giving Li long baseline rallies that the Chinese player could use to keep dictating play. Clijsters broke right away when Li double-faulted, and the next game featured what was probably the best rally of the match. Li won it, and got a break point as a reward, but Clijsters saved it when Li put the ball into the net. She did convert on her next break point, however. Li was then broken, and--on her third break point--she broke Clijsters with a stunning crosscourt forehand shot.

Everything still looked pretty even at this point, but then Clijsters dialed up her defense, hitting several backhand slices in a row, and throwing Li off her rhythm. She held two break points, in fact, but Li saved them. Clijsters then held and broke Li.

If I were the kind of person who used the expression "This is when the wheels fell off," I'd certainly describe flying wheels. At this point in the second set, Li looked tired--not so much physically, though it was very hot, but mentally. Some of the Chinese crowd were yelling during points, and Li asked the chair umpire to get them to stop; she would do this several times in the course of the match (why do chair umpires have to be asked to scold an inappropriate crowd?). She was distracted and frustrated, then she was broken again, and Clijsters took the second set 6-3.

Clijsters held at love to begin the third set. Li then went down 0-40, but saved two break points with her signature crosscourt forehand, and then with an ace. She set up a great save of the third break point, too, but mis-hit a volley, sending the ball beyond the baseline. Clijsters then double-faulted twice, and Li broke back, but she wasn't hitting with nearly the same accuracy and precision she had executed in the first set.

Perhaps boosted by Clijsters' service problems, Li suddenly began to serve well again. But then she, too, double-faulted, and was broken back. Clijsters then held for a 4-1 lead, and it was Li's level of play, not the score itself, that hinted that Chinese player was not going to make one of her famous comebacks. Li did hold in the next game, but it was not a strong hold, and Clijsters held, too. Li was able to hold easily when Clisters made back-to-back errors, and there was the slightest hint that the match might go on, but the 3rd seed held easily for a 6-3 set win, which gave her the 2011 championship.

Given the 9th seed's propensity for coming back in tough matches, it was entirely reasonable to suspect that she would gather herself together and figure out the third set. But that didn't happen. Instead, she continued to make a number of unforced errors and nervous shots, while Clijsters (who said, on her return to the tour, that she just had to stop doing splits on hard courts!) was doing splits right and left to retrieve balls and often turn her defensive shots into winners. In the first half of the match, Li had frequently trapped Clijsters in the ad corner, but by the third set, she was having difficulty doing even that.

As is often the case in a big match, one player's level went up and the other player's level went down. In the second half of the match, Clijsters gave Li more variety than she could handle, and Li was not up to the mental task of becoming the first Chinese player to win a major.

Nevertheless, it was a good match, and Li's run to the final was one of the great stories of the tournament. As for Clijsters, she showed, once again, that on a hard court, she can now think like a champion and do what she has to do to win. She burst into tears when the match was over, then gave an amusing acceptance speech, in which she told fans that it's finally alright to call her "Aussie Kim." Indeed.

Kim Clijsters, volume 2, is as athletic and clever on court as the first version, and--despite continuing tendencies to lose her way from time to time--this Kim Clijsters has learned to be in charge when it counts. I think health is the key for her; if she can remain relatively uninjured this season, she has a chance to give some more speeches about chipped teeth, ugly lucky pants, and anything else that strikes her fancy.

One final note: Throughout her run in Melbourne, Clijsters wore a green dress that was designed as a tribute to the great Evonne Goolagong Cawley. This was a nice touch, especially from my viewpoint, since Goolagong Cawley is one of my favorite players of all time.

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