Belgium’s Kim Clijsters stared adversity in the face and reloaded a new strategy that cut China’s Li Na off at the pass. Out of necessity, the winner changed both the tempo and momentum of their championship match in Melbourne. On the heels of her 2010 U.S. Open title, Clijsters claimed her fourth Grand Slam title and firmly supplanted herself as the best hard court player in the last ten years.
A heavy favorite to win the tournament and the final match, Clijsters was forced to change her style to subdue the solid play of the first player from The People’s Republic of China to earn a berth in a Grand Slam final. The 9th seeded Li arrived brimming with confidence after upsetting Clijsters in the Sydney final just two weeks ago.
Li carried play in the first set, coming back from a first game break to overwhelm the favorite with a combination of grit and excellent movement. Both players resembled high stakes gamblers as they refused to give in to the incredible pace of their groundstrokes.
In the previous 17 Grand Slam finals, the player who won the first set went on to win the title. Li won the first set but Clijsters broke in the first game of the second set and then held to go ahead 2-0. It was an uneasy lead as Li held at love and then broke the Belgian to pull even at 2-2, just four games from the championship.
The pair exchanged breaks but at 3-3, Clijsters noticed that Li was missing overheads. Li who has made a living using her opponent’s pace to redirect powerful winners came unnerved when Clijsters resorted to hitting softer, more elevated shots and only hitting powerfully when she saw an opening.
In the role of having to generate her own pace, Li began to over-hit or under-hit seemingly innocent shots. Clijsters ran off three relatively quick games to claim the middle set in the 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, two plus hour match.
Li still attacked the Belgian’s serve converting 6 of 12 break point opportunities while Clijsters converted 7 of 17 chances. Both women committed numerous unforced errors but as the play began to come to Clijsters, her errors decreased significantly. In the end, Li registered 40 errors compared to Kim’s 24. Li outgunned the champion by creating 24 outright winners compared to 22 by Clijsters.
The filled Rod Laver Arena warmed to Li and her first set win was boisterously celebrated by a large contingency from China. The disturbances cause by the very vocal audience seemed to bother the runner-up. Twice she complained to the umpire about distractions when she was hitting the ball as her followers screamed for out calls on balls that were clearly in play.
Li may will benefit from this experience and she will also benefit from Clijsters’ stoic attack. Whether she was up or down, the Champion maintained the same demeanor and body language, a trait many of the tour’s young prima donnas have not mastered.
We have not seen the last of Li and hopefully we will see more of Clijsters. During the 2011 Australian Open Tennis Tournament, the Champion lost but one set. When China’s top player learns to master the off speed delivery, she will be even tougher than she was in Melbourne.
Clijsters hoisted the mammoth Australian Open Trophy and thanked the fans for their support and her new moniker, Aussie Kim. Great tennis, great sport and a tournament well run. The 2011 Australian Open Championship belongs to the best player on the tour right now. Well done, Ms Clijsters!
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