The Australian Open finals this year have been revolutionary. If we will witness a totally unlikely final—with likely opponents, of course—the women’s final had a lot at stake. The Aussies love Kim Clijsters, and Aussie-Kim loves Australia, but there have been disappointments for her in this land. The other lady, Li Na, was representing an entire nation of 1.3 billion people, which, despite the sheer quantity, never had the quality to make a mark in this sport. Li Na had enjoyed a fairy tale ride this time, and winning her maiden major would have been the perfect climax of the story.
Unfortunately, one fairy tale story always comes at the cost of other. Kim had enjoyed such a run ever since she came back as version 2.0. She has been mentally much more stable, and this is what drove her to the final this year at Melbourne. There were numerous instances during the tournament, when she was either troubled, or couldn’t find her way in the match, but she hung on mentally until she found her groove.
Today she was not off her game. She was facing an opponent who could hit bigger than her, and more consistently. In my preview for the semifinals, I wrote that Wozniacki would be tough for Li Na because of her ability to change the pace. Clijsters did not realize that, and played into the hands of the Chinese for almost a set and a half, and Li was cruising comfortably.
Once Clijsters got that Eureka moment, she was a completely different player. She sliced and diced, played the ugly loopy shots, and went for her winners only after she got control. Li Na, who was surprisingly calm till that point of time—especially given it was her first major final—started to melt down, just like she had suffered against Wozniacki. By the third set, she was complaining about her own fans making calls during the points, made two challenges which were wrong by a big margin, screamed at herself in frustration, and was troubled by the camera flashes.
Kim, like a true champion, kept her cool, motivated herself with the occasional fist pumps, and saved her best for the final game of the championship which she comfortably held at love with three huge winners.
China did not get to hold a major trophy, but she does have a player who is charismatic. After watching the tears of Federer and Murray, the meltdowns of Zvonareva, and the almost depressed face of Dementieva, it was refreshing to see Li Na joking around during the presentation ceremony, laughing her heart out as if nothing was lost, and saved her best—again—during her runner’s up speech, when she called her husband fat and ugly, and yet expressing her love for him regardless. Maybe it was a different way of hiding her disappointment, maybe not. But it definitely looked like the glass was half-full for her than half-empty. Very rare to keep that perspective, when you so near, yet so far from the ultimate prize in tennis.
As for Kim, she can no longer be called a U.S. Open-only player—something which 99 percent of players will settle for. She finally dubbed herself as “Aussie Kim,” and gave a long, patient victory speech, telling stories and thanking everybody. She has already opened up her retirement plans sometime during next year, and she is enjoying every moment under the lime light. And so should we, as tennis fans. It is hard to see a more complete player on hard courts, and WTA will be safe in the hands of Kim Clijsters …. till she plans to bless the tour.