Tennis

Maturity, experience aid Clijsters to title

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Matt Cronin

Matt Cronin is a senior editor at Inside Tennis magazine and the co-owner of the award-winning TennisReporters.net.

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MELBOURNE, Australia

Kim Clijsters was in a funk in the Australian Open final, but by no means was she willing to allow Li Na to dictate to her for two straight sets and walk away the winner, not when the Belgian had spent the past two years trying to show that she's a smarter and more mature player.

So after she was totally outhit in the first set and found herself just three games away from defeat against the sturdy-legged Li, she decided to take a deep breath, throw in a few changeups and see if she could shake her older, but less-experienced big-stage opponent.

Last two standing

 
Li Na and Kim Clijsters play the Australian Open final
Relieve the best moments from Li Na and Kim Clijsters' hard-fought final match at the 2011 Australian Open.

This Clijsters has more options in her game and is a more heady player than the one who was pushed back in the 2004 Australian final by Justine Henin. This one not only can play superior  defense, but also high-octane offense — and throw in some dazzling junk balls.

The Belgian took off, won 10 of the next 13 games and won her fourth Grand Slam and first Australian Open with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Li.

"If you play a Grand Slam final that you really, really want to win, you always feel that pressure," said Clijsters' coach, Wim Fissette. "They both played at a very high level and it was one of best Grand Slams I've seen. Kim is more mature now, and today she felt like couldn't win with her normal game and had to change it."

Unlike some other players who have come into Grand Slam finals and panicked (see Dinara Safina), the 28-year-old Li composed herself after a rocky two games and tore the cover off the ball. She whacked hard-to-handle serves, jumped on Clijsters' mediocre serves, outhit her off both wings from the ground and briefly seized control of a match she wasn't supposed to win.

But down 2-3 in the second set, Clijsters looped in some high balls, began to play more down the line than crosscourt, attacked Li's serves more eagerly and finally rediscovered the pace on her forehand. Li tried to hang tough in the third set, but the occasion was a little too much for her as she complained to the chair umpire about Chinese fans who were trying to coach her during the match. Although she's a lighthearted person, she looked a little worn down by having to outlast No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals and then confront former No. 1 Clijsters in the final.

"I don't know why after I come to the final so many Chinese (fans were) coaching me on the court," a flustered Li said. "Of course the fans, they want I can win this match, but they coach me how to play tennis on the court."

Once Clijsters got some breathing space in the third set, she locked Li down. Serving for the match at 5-3, she crushed two forehand winners and the saw her foe commit two errors to end the two-hour, five-minute contest.

Clijsters then cried in joy into her towel, eventually thanked her very large group of supporters (in addition to Fissette, her husband Brian Lynch, her physio, her nanny, her manager, her doctor, a local dentist and two junior players) and later on local television, mentioned her father Lei, who passed away a few years ago. She was tense in the contest but able to play through it, throwing in a few fist pumps and hard stares along the way.

The best from Down Under

 
2011 Australian Open
Recap all the news and commentary from Melbourne during the Australian Open. Review the winner's paths by checking out the Men's singles draw and Women's singles draw.

See the best pictures from Melbourne with the early-round photo gallery, second week photo gallery, men's semifinals gallery, women's final gallery and men's final gallery. Also check out what the on-court styles with the Australian Open fashion gallery.

"I think what overwhelms me is that it's so intense up until that last shot, and then all of a sudden it's finished. Then it's just like a big relief," she said

What's been truly impressive about Clijsters over the past five months is that despite her No. 3 ranking (she'll rise to No. 2 on Monday), she's come into the 2010 U.S. Open, the year-end WTA Championships and the 2011 Australian Open as the favorite and still come through. Before Clijsters retired in May 2007, she went into a number of Slams as top pick and only managed to win one major — the 2005 U.S. Open. Since her August 2009 comeback, Clijsters has won three out of the five Grand Slams she's played.

In Melbourne, she had to battle past the streaky Russian Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round, the cagey Pole Agnieszka Radwanska — the woman who had stunned her at Wimbledon — in the quarterfinals, then No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, and Li, who had 1.6 billion Chinese cheering for her and who had outlasted Wozniacki in the semifinals.

"For Kim, it's not easy to be the big favorite, and she had a few matches where that showed — like the Radwanska match, where everyone expected an easy win but the other player can play well and feel confident, so it's not easy," Fissette said. "In the semis against Zvonareva, she knew her well, knew she was a great player and knew she wasn't the big favorite and then played really well. She really know how to focus for the Grand Slams now."

Clijsters admitted that before her retirement, the pressure of being one of the favorites "kind of overwhelmed me a little bit." But now she can leave the interview room, go back to her husband and daughter, hit the practice court and gym and leave most of it behind. Unlike last year, when she lost her concentration and was stunned by Nadia Petrova, she managed her emotions quite well.

"I was trying to be the best Kim out there and not worry about the impact or the favorite role," she said.

Fissette said that before Clijsters retired, she was lacking a little motivation. When she returned, she decided to become super fit, play with more of an offensive mentality and become more aware of the ebbs and flow of matches. The three-time U.S. Open champion was able to achieve a big goal for herself by winning a major outside of New York, a feat Fissette called "very important."

Serena Williams, who has won 13 Grand Slams and has been off the tour since winning Wimbledon last July, is hoping to return in late March or early April. The 27-year-old Clijsters says she is planning on competing at least through the 2012 London Olympics and then will decide where to go from there.

As it stands today, Clijsters is the tour's best player until Serena returns and certainly will challenge Williams when she comes back. The task for Clijsters now is to raise big trophies on clay at Roland Garros and on grass at Wimbledon. Clijsters said that winning those two would be nice, but she's not focused on it yet.

She's reached the French final twice, one a loss to Jennifer Capriati, 12-10 in the third set, in 2001 when she was still a teenager, the other a beat down to Henin in 2004. That was the less-mature Clijsters back then. Despite a little lack of confidence on clay, this more knowledgeable version likely will enter that Slam as the favorite once again.

"I'm sure she can win it, and we've talked about it few times," Fissette said. "The French Open is the Grand Slam title she should have won the first time, and I don't think there any problems for her to play well there."

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