Mid-match adjustments and a calm demeanor propelled Kim Clijsters to her fourth Grand Slam title. The lesson? Experience counts.
On momentous occasions like Grand Slam finals, subtle nuances are often amplified so that they become glaringly obvious. What was obvious last night, as Kim Clijsters fought her way back from a set down to capture her first Australian Open title, was just how far a little clarity can take a player.
Clijsters, down a set, and serving poorly, should have been the one to let her emotions get the best of her — but she knew better. Instead, the determined Belgian rallied herself. She had the wherewithal to recognize that she was being outhit by Li, and the presence of mind to actuate subtle changes that allowed her to stem the tide of the hard-hitting Li.
"I tried to mix it up a little bit, put some slices in, also hit a few higher shots that kind of just made her make some unforced errors," said Clijsters.
It seems simple when you think about it. But to actually take stock of a situation — Clijsters would later admit that she felt that Li was playing the best she'd ever played against her — and to make adjustments on the fly that change the tone of the match is the sign of a mature and intuitive player.
That's the kind of Champion Clijsters is.
Yesterday it made all the difference. Clijsters proved to the world that she is so much more than the prototypical baseline basher. She's a cerebral strategist who can vary her game to meet a plethora of challenges.
Li showed terrific ball striking skill throughout the affair, but in the end, Clijster's comeback was evidence that to win a Slam there has to be nuance as well. Li's ground strokes — from both sides — are perhaps the best in the game at the moment, but up against a player with the ability to take her out of her comfort zone, she found herself without a proper reply.
It didn't help Li's cause that she became distracted as the match grew tense. She complained about crowd noise, flash photography, and would later state that "she felt like she was playing in Belgium."
"Yeah, I saw her get a little bit aggravated, and just tried to hang in there," Clijsters later would say.
For Li, who was three games from the title — with three consecutive breaks of Clijster's serve in her pocket — at 3-2 in the second set, she was tantalizingly close, yet so far.
The heat of the moment, coupled with Clijster's stiffened resolve, proved to be too much.
As Clijster's clarity increased, Li's chaos did too. Slowly, the Belgian took control, not losing another game in the second set.
In the third set, Clijsters won a stunning 15 of 16 first serve points, and Li's 15 unforced errors gave Clijsters free points at a time when nerves might have made longer points very tricky for her to navigate.
When it was time for Clijster's to serve it out at 5-3, Li couldn't mount a challenge. Her fight was still there as she hammered returns toward the baseline, but her focus had disappeared.
For a long time it appeared that Li Na would win this match.
Then the cooler head prevailed. Call it the focus factor.
Clijsters had it and Li didn't.
"After the match, back to the locker room, I make joke," said Li. "Tennis should only play one set."
Clijsters, meanwhile, liked it just the way it was.