It might have been another default — and spectators on Rod Laver Arena have seen enough of those over the past few days. But Kim Clijsters doesn’t give up, not when her Australian Open title is on the line. So she refused to quit when she went over badly on her left ankle in the first set against China’s Li Na and, after having it heavily taped, staged one of her greatest comebacks from four match points down in the second set tie break to win 4-6, 7-6, 6-4.
It was drama all the way on a blisteringly hot afternoon as Clijsters seemed to be on the verge of retirement while being worked on by the trainer. She fought her way back into the match as Li Na failed to move her around and then almost let slip a 5-1 lead in the deciding set. Earlier, Li had failed to capitalize on the seemingly impregnable position of leading 6-2 in the breaker. She lost two points with errors and then, after a furious baseline rally, made a bad decision to come in and was rooted to the spot as Clijsters hoisted a winning lob top level at 6-6.
In the third, Li suddenly sprang into life after appearing mesmerized by her opponent’s ability to battle on during the previous hour. Putting together some good winners off both flanks and she broke to close the gap to 4-5. Suddenly the pressure was back on the Belgian and she almost faltered before coming up with enough good serves to take herself through to the quarterfinal.
This was a repeat matchup of last year’s final here and, at the start, Li seemed to be in the better rhythm. But the injury changed everything and seemed to affect Li as much as her opponent which is often the case when a player is confronted by a wounded opponent. The dilemma of just how much to play on the injury and how to stick to one’s own game is always there and Li did not handle the situation well.
She looked distraught in her postmatch press conference as would any athlete who has 2.5 million people following her every move on Facebook. "I thought I played OK," she kept insisting, but was unable to explain how the match points got away from her.
But all credit to the ever-popular Clijsters, almost an Aussie by adoption after being linked to Lleyton Hewitt earlier in her career. The support of the crowd and her own refusal to disappoint them enabled her to rack up one of her most memorable victories.
She admitted that quitting had crossed her mind. "But I knew if I could just let the medication sink in and get through the first 20 minutes then maybe with the adrenaline, I could just fly through it," she said. "I just tried to find a new solution to how I was feeling. I had to find a new tactic. I’m not gonna be able to push off for the wide shots but I’m gonna try and fight another way."
Clijsters realized that Li was finding it difficult. "I think she was a little lost or maybe a little confused at that time and she made some easy mistakes. But I didn’t want to give her anything for free."
Earlier, No. 3 seed Victoria Azarenka had scored an easy 6-2, 6-2 win over unseeded Czech Iveta Benesova to set up a quarterfinal meeting with Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska, who beat Julia Goerges of Germany 6-1, 6-1.
In the men’s draw Rafael Nadal continued on his merry way, defeating his friend and compatriot Feliciano Lopez 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. Nadal is in high spirits now, not just because he feels fit and injury-free but because he has made such an exceptionally good start to the tournament. No one has taken more than four games in a set so far.
"Sometimes in a few tournaments I feel that I am improving day by day," he said. "But this time I felt that the first day I played well and then the second, two days ago, I also played well. But now I arrive to the quarterfinals. In general, I am doing the right things. I am in the right place, the right moment."
Nadal also had kind words for Lleyton Hewitt whose match against Milos Raonic, he had watched on TV the night before.
"Even though I have good relations with Milos’ coach who is from Spain, I really get emotional when Lleyton finished. He goes to the floor. He is really showing his emotions. I think he deserves respect and admiration of all the people who love this sport because, after having … five, six surgeries, he still has the motivation to run, to fight for every ball. He’s one of the more charismatic players on tour. I always liked him, his spirit on competition. Today he is an example to follow for a lot of people."
Hewitt plays defending champion Novak Djokovic on Monday.