Friday, January 28, 2011

Quick Picks: Clijsters-Li

Born in the year of the dog, Li Na will need to be more bite than bark in order to get past cagey Kim Clijsters in the final.

There is an electric air of positivity accompanying Li Na's fearless run to the Australian Open final. The buzz is palpable, and it's not so much about Li the player as it is about China the tennis nation. But Li is the player for the moment, and tonight 330 million television sets will be tuned in to see how well the 28-year-old will respond to the pressure of being the chosen one.

There have been milestones for Chinese tennis in the last ten years, but the fact that the relatively unheralded Wuhan native is two sets away from being the first Chinese player to take home a Grand Slam singles title is one that makes your head spin.

Chinese tennis has made a rapid ascent in the new millennium, and Li's run to the title puts them at the apex of phase one -- a ten-year period of introduction, experience, and development that has put the sport on the collective radar of the typical sport-loving Chinese citizen.

So where will Chinese tennis go from here?

And what will the ramifications be if Li gets drubbed by her more experienced foe, Kim Clijsters?

Will they still mention her name in the same breath as Yao Ming?

Either outcome won't suspend the obvious traction that the Chinese tennis program has gained over the last decade. It was just last week that Li upset Clijsters in Sydney to give China its first WTA premier title, but a dream scenario that involves Li playing the match of her life could accelerate the process even further.

In America we had generations of young players who grew up idolizing Grand Slam champions. McEnroe and Connors spawned Sampras and Agassi. Billie Jean King spawned Chris Evert who then spawned Tracy Austin and Pam Shriver.

In China it's not hard to imagine what people must feel to see one of their own be the toast of the tennis world right now. They're immensely proud, and rightfully so. Given the relative vacuum of power that now exists on the WTA Tour -- with the Williams Sisters aging, Henin's retirement, and Clijsters in perhaps her last season -- what's to stop a Chinese family from believing that their daughter can be the next Na Li?

And if they can believe that, what's to stop them from believing that their daughter can be the next Monica Seles or Serena Williams? For a nation that had virtually no tennis history at the turn of the century, why not dream big?

"Li Na's breakthrough performance will propel the popularity of women's tennis forward exponentially in the China market," says Stacey Allaster, the WTA's Tour chief. Naturally that is the hope, but the match -- whether or not we find ourselves captivated by a high quality contest between Li and Clijsters -- might have serious swaying power on those who are viewing the sport for the first time.

Tonight on Rod Laver, history will be made regardless of the outcome. But the emotional imprint that this historical occasion will leave is still yet to be determined.

That is what leaves tennis fans around the world drooling. If this match should match the hype, we could be in for a significant treat.

Li will take the court against a veteran presence who is heavily favored in spite of her recent victory against her in Sydney. The odds will be stacked against Li, just as they were in the semifinal with Caroline Wozniacki, when she brushed off a match point and defeated the No. 1 player in three sets.

But what dream ending doesn't begin with the odds stacked against a particular player?

Li did defeat Clijsters in Sydney on January 14th, and she has also taken two of their last three meetings. But in their last truly important match at last year's U.S. Open, Clijsters won decisively 6-2, 6-4.

Like so many colossal tennis matches, the outcome will likely be determined by which player is better equipped to handle the magnitude of the moment. Francesca Schiavone's carpe diem moment at the French Open enabled her to become Italy's first Grand Slam champion less than a year ago, and she did it by recognizing that she'd have to let it all hang out in order to win.

The same opportunity now awaits Li, who was forced to let it all hang out in desperation against Wozniacki in her semifinal match. Now that she's through, and the hype machine switched on, Li will hope for some more magic against Clijsters.

She will find a far more formidable foe in the final. Clijsters, the darling of the WTA since returning to tennis, became the first mother to win a Grand Slam since 1980 when she won the U.S. Open in 2009. In 2010, for good measure, she won it again.

But she's never won in Australia. And she's likely never played second-fiddle to a media maelstrom the size of the one surrounding her Chinese opponent at the moment. But the 27-year-old Belgian is mature enough to stay focused on her tennis as the moment draws near. And she's got her own personal reasons for desperately wanting this title, too.

It could be her last chance.

"I know this is probably going to be my last full season on the tour, and then we'll see," said Clijsters, whose comments lead some to believe that she might not be back in Melbourne to compete in 2012. "It's nice that I'm in this spot, to play for the final," she said, "I think it's something that is a great feeling to have, knowing that I'm not going to be able to come her for five more years."

But Li, who has kept tennis fans in stitches with her quirky off-the-cuff press conferences and interviews, is also contemplating a retirement of her own. "If I win this year, maybe next year I will retire," said Li, smiling.
Coming from a woman who spent most of her on-court interview complaining about her husband's snoring and her motivation to secure more prize money, odds are that she's not serious.

Whether she retires or not, the golden flower may never have another golden opportunity like tonight.

Pick: Clijsters in 2


  1. Did ya see it? Wasn't it good! I doubt this will be Li Na's last grand slam final. I look forward to the rest of her season.

  2. It was a really excellent final -- just would have liked to see Li have a better third set. I'm very curious to see if Li benefits from the confidence as much as Schiavone and Zvonareva have. I hope so.


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