Saturday, January 29, 2011

Kim, You Doll



Time has been good to Kim Clijsters. And after her experiences at the 2011 Australian Open, history will forever look kindly upon her, as well.



Aside from a few hiccups along the way, ever since the now 27-year old Belgian returned to the WTA tour in the summer of 2009 after her two-plus year retirement, she's managed to consistently knock down many of the historical doors that had remained closed to her during her first tennis career. She locked away a second U.S. Open title in just her third tournament back, then defended it a year later. She won a Tour Championships title, and went 3-0 against her similarly then un-retired countrywoman Justine Henin in '10. As she entered the 2011 season, staring her in the face was the opportunity to effectively put a stake through the heart of whatever lingering memory there was of her largely-underachieving 1.0 career. With two post-retirement slam titles under her belt, a third -- either in New York come September, or at another slam where she'd NEVER previously won -- would solidify Clijsters as a player who'd finally lived up to her talent. Better late than never... and maybe better now than when she might not have appreciated it quite as much.

When this Australian Open began, she was the odds-on favorite by quite a large margin against a field that was minus five-time AO champ Serena Williams. Winning in New York was one thing. She'd done that before. But doing so Down Under was yet another door that she'd failed to open earlier in her career. Without an appearance in a final there since 2004, and just one year removed from nearly being double-bageled in a defeat at the hands of Nadia Petrova, winning a fourth career slam title in Melbourne would mean that her formerly-wanting big stage history would be, in an almost Agassi-like turning of the tables, summarily shoved to the back of the mind of anyone chronicling her career as a whole.

Through six rounds, Clijsters seemed a few times to slightly wobble under the glare of the favorite's spotlight, but never long enough to drop a set en route to her eighth career slam final. Waiting there for her was a familiar figure -- Li Na, the 28-year old Chinese woman who had handed the Belgian a straight sets defeat in the Sydney final just days before the start of the AO despite Clijsters racing to a 5-0 1st set lead. It was her first loss in a final since her comeback (leaving her 6-1), and at least raised the possibility that her sometimes-streaky nature might come back to haunt her if it flaired up long enough against the wrong opponent.

If anyone could do it, it seemed as if Li was the woman who might. A 2010 semifinalist in Melbourne, the veteran burst onto the Melbourne scene anew through the two weeks of play in 2011, maintaining a consistent level of play on the court like no other woman in the field, then delighting the masses with her irresistible humor in post-match interviews in which she often recounted conversations with her family members -- including her mother back home in China, and her husband/coach Jiang Shan, a perfect and willing foil for the good-natured barbs uttered into many a microphone over the course of the fortnight -- in order to allow her own personality to shine through any language barriers that might have otherwise existed. Continuing to blaze yet another new trail for Chinese tennis, Li, the player who eschewed the (overly)guiding hand of her nation's tennis federation years ago, became the first Asian to ever reach a grand slam singles final when she came back from match point down in the semifinals against world #1 Caroline Wozniacki. Already the first Chinese player to win a tour singles title (2004), advance to a slam QF (2006) and reach the Top 30, 20, 15 and 10, Li was looking to further immortalize herself as a national tennis pioneer by becoming the first true champion from the land which promises to soon become a tennis power for generations. A whole new world awaits a WTA which will likely one day to populated by numerous potential slam winners with Chinese surnames, and the hitting-her-career-peak Li looked ready to offer up an early preview of things to come.

After the Aussie heat had relented throughout the tournament, it finally made an appearance on the final Saturday. In extremely warm conditions, the first meeting in thirty years of two married women in a grand slam singles final opened as it would eventually close, but the time in between was to be where history would be made.

Clijsters began the match with an ace, held at love, then broke Li's serve at love to grab a 2-0 lead. Li was familiar with such a predicament, having fallen behind by similar scores in both sets in a straight sets quarterfinal win against Andrea Petkovic a few days earlier. She rebounded quickly against the German, and did so against the Belgian, as well. Big groundstrokes got her a break point, and a Clijsters error closed the deficit to 2-1. After holding fairly easily for 2-2, Li saved two break points two games later, holding for 3-3 in a game in which Clijsters' errors prevented her from re-taking her early advantage. Good Li defense, and a weak Clijsters overhead attempt (one game after she'd failed to put away another overhead) that Li retrieved before Clijsters sent a volley long, put the Chinese woman in position to take her first lead in the match. Up 40/15 on the Belgian's serve, another Clijsters error led to a break and a 4-3 Li lead. After saving another break, Li held for 5-3 then, after a Clijsters error and a Li forehand winner, her passing shot over the stretching Clijsters at the net put away the set at 6-3.

It was Clijsters' first dropped set of the tournament, and history seemed to be conspiring against her getting her career indentity-altering title in Melbourne. Coming into the AO, seventeen consecutive women's slam finals had seen the winner of the 1st set claim the title (including five consecutive in Australia, and 15-of-17), sixteen times in straight sets. Clijsters herself had never had to go three sets to win any of her previous slam titles in NYC, let alone having to come back from a set down.

Her 2.0 mettle was about to be tested.

In Li's 2nd set-opening service game, Clijsters erased a 40/15 deficit to get to break point. On the second BP of the game, Li double-faulted and Clijsters jumped ahead 1-0. But the breaks would continue as, over the next few games, Clijsters' serve would be broken for a third and fourth consecutive time (echoing how Li twice broke Wozniacki's serve three straight times in back-to-back sets), while Li's was broken once more. After saving two break points, the Chinese woman finaly ended the match's string of five straight breaks by holding for 3-2.

Down a set and 3-2, after seeming to wait for Li to make mistakes after having taken the quick lead in the opening set, Clijsters reversed course. She started to be more aggressive, and it began to work wonders. She held for 3-3, and soon began to play her best tennis in the literal heat of the final battle. Continuing to get break opportunities on Li's serve -- she'd had at least one in every Li service game since she'd held for 2-2 in the 1st -- Clijsters cashed another in with a forehand winner to go up 4-3. After weathering a virtual storm of hard, physical rallies with Li, the Belgian then held for 5-3. As Li began to get testy as a result of fans calling out in the stands during points, Clijsters' game became more and more dialed-in with every game. A big backhand return and a Li error got another break of serve, and closed out the set 6-3 for Clijsters. It was the fourth break of the Chinese vet's serve in the 2nd set, one in which Li was seemingly talking to herself in frustration after every other point.

Having saved herself from a quick loss, Clijsters had still another step to take to secure her tennis legacy. After three easy U.S. Open final victories (her opponents, Mary Pierce, Wozniacki and Vera Zvonareva, all wilted under the lights in Flushing Meadows), Clijsters was now in position to show that she could put a boot on an opponent's neck and win a 3rd set to claim a major. It's precisely what she'd failed to do as a 18-year old in Paris in 2001 against Jennifer Capriati in her first-ever slam final, losing a 12-10 3rd set after four times being within two points of victory, establishing a big-match pattern that would remain intact throughout her 1.0 career. In her only previous AO final, against Henin in '04, she stood in a strikingly similar position on the scoreboard, having lost the 1st set 3-6, then winning the second 6-4. On that day, Henin won the title by claiming a 6-4 3rd.

If Clijsters 2.0 truly WAS different, she had to defeat Li. Right here. Right now. And that's just what she did.

Determined rather than tight, Clijsters struck quickly, holding at love to begin the set just as she had in the 1st. Winning seven straight points to begin the set, she grabbed another 2-0 lead (her fifth break of Li in six serve games) as her game and gait picked up speed, while her variety of shot and accuracy were lethal and pinpoint. Li turned the momentum back in her direction for a brief moment, getting a break with a big forehand shot to close to within 2-1, but it would ONLY be brief. For the tenth time in eleven service games, Li faced still more break points when her double-fault gave Clijsters a chance to grab the advantage again in Game #4. A backhand error later, it was 3-1. The race was on. Clijsters held at love for 4-1, and could now see the match's finish line.

Needing to just hold serve twice to win the title, Clijsters focused on her own serve game. Li held serve without facing a break point in her final two attempts of the match, even while continuing to be bothered by activities in the stands (in this case, flash cameras), but Clijsters never slowed long enough to allow her to harbor any thoughts of turning the tide back in her favor. Committing just five unforced errors in the 3rd set, the Belgian served for the championship at 5-3. She held at love, winning 3-6/6-3/6-3 and claiming a title that she almost certainly would have found a way to lose years ago.

It's Clijsters' fourth career slam win, but her first Australian Open (and first major title outside of New York). Since her return to the tour, she's won three of the four hard court slams that have been contested. After going 0-4 in her first four appearances in slam finals, she's now won her last four, including going 3-0 post-retirement. 27-2 in 2.0 slams, Clijsters' career turn in now complete.

She'll no longer be viewed by anyone as an undeachieving "pretender." After all these years, she is finally a true champion.

It's rare that a comeback career manages to outdistance an athlete's original run. Just ask Justine. But Clijsters has pulled off the feat, even though she'd reached #1 and won a slam in her first go-around. It was only the depth of her talent that made her results feel disappointing. More focused, and feeling less internal pressure on the big stage, she has taught herself to thrive under deep-in-a-slam circumstances by doing what some greats would deem unthinkable -- realizing that believing that losing wouldn't be the end of her world is actually the best way for her to focus on the athletic and mental task at hand. While Li rises to #7 after this match, Clijsters is the new #2, with the possibility of reclaiming the #1 spot for the first time since 2006 a distinct possibility. And in an unforeseen turn of events, it's all happening with the scent of Henin's own failed comeback still wafting through the WTA airspace.

Who knows what the future holds for Clijsters. Will 2011 be her last full year on tour, with her pointing toward playing in the London Olympics next year, but with her plans for beyond that being the subject of conflicting comments? It'll likely come down to how much she enjoys her new big-time winning ways, and how long she's willing to wait to have a second child. And even if Jada gets a younger sibling soon, does it definitively mean that Clijsters' playing days will come to a final end?

Who knows? But, really, on some level it no longer matters when it comes to Clijsters' career reputation. I said before this season that she had a chance to fully re-cast the memory of her career by continuing her 2.0 slam success in 2011. Well, she's done it. Consider her career re-cast in an entirely different light... even here.

Barbie sure knows how to make up for lost time. Really, there's nothing more that can be asked of her.



=DAY 13 NOTES=
...in the post-match ceremony, Li was once again what has now come to be her expectedly-charming and funny self, but her runner-up remarks acted almost as a warm-up act for Clijsters' brilliant "keynote speech." Seriously, the Belgian's oh-so-casual sounding address to the crowd was one of the more engaging performances I can remember following a slam final. Francesca Schiavone's post-RG comments were heartwarming, but KC performed like a "mistress of ceremonies" opening an awards show... and she pulled off the gig with the ease of someone rising from the dinner table to talk to her family.

She spoke all the usual thank-you's, of course, but also gave a promised nod to the unnamed dentist who'd done a quick fix on the tooth she'd chipped while eating at the airport after arriving in Melbourne. She also apologized to the trainer who she said she swears at all the time, gently ribbed her uncle for the ugly green pants she forced him to wear to the arena because he'd worn them before during a match she'd won earlier, said a quick hello to the in-attendance AO junior champ -- Belgium's An-Sophie Mestach, told husband Brian that she loved him (and winkingly remarked to everyone how he gets shy sometimes) and even said that she finally thought it was okay for the fans to call her "Aussie Kim" now since she'd actually won the title there.

Maybe KC should host the Golden Globes next year... or the Oscars, since there's a chance she might be otherwise engaged in mid-January 2012.

If anyone -- as I did -- wondered why she didn't mention the dentist's actual name it was because, as Clijsters noted in her press conference, she didn't remember it (he's somewhere in the Chapel Hill area, though, she said). Also, apparently, she chipped her tooth eating a rice cracker, of all things (I can understand -- I did the same thing a few years ago eating a Bugle). So, as it turned out, the only thing that was able to best the Belgian in Melbourne was a simple combination, amongst other things, of rice and water.

...speaking of KC's player's box guest Mestach, the teenager's Girls singles final win over Monica Puig allowed her to sweep both the junior singles and doubles titles at this AO. The other Belgians who've won junior slam titles were Kirsten Flipkens ('03 Wimbledon and U.S. Open) and Justine Henin ('97 Roland Garros). Clijsters never did.

Jiri Vesely (CZE) also swept the junior singles and doubles Boys titles after taking out Aussie Luke Seville in the singles final.

...considering Li's participation in the final sparking viewership levels in China, might this final have been the most watched in tennis history?

...Katarina Srebotnik will be going for her fifth career Mixed Doubles slam crown in the final with Daniel Nestor on Day 14, while Taiwan's Chan Yung-Jan (with Paul Hanley -- who I forgot was Australian, so the home nation DOES have one final shot at a title) will try to become the only Asian champ at this AO where the continent as a whole has made so many inroads.

...in the Men's Doubles final, Bob & Mike Bryan defeated Indians Mahesh Bhupathi & Leander Paes to claim their third straight AO crown, and their fifth in the last six years in Melbourne. They've now won ten career slams as a team, one behind all-time slam leaders Mark Woodforde & Todd Woodbridge's eleven. Yes, THAT Todd Woodbridge.

...quick "Triumverate" update: with Clijsters' win, either a Russian, Belgian or Williams has now won eight of the last nine slams, and thirty-two of the last thirty-six.

...and, finally, I must admit that while I opened this Australian Open by hedging my bets and picking Clijsters to win this tournament, using a deconstruction of the film satire "Dr. Strangelove" to do it, I wasn't sure how I'd feel about things it they did actually play out that way. And I surely didn't think Henin's retirement would be plunked right down in the middle of everything, to boot. But, as we are now at that point... I have to say I'm... (go on, you can do it)... umm, happy for Clijsters.

I should probably insert a parenthetical "(shivers)" here to signal my trepidation with such a comment, but I won't. Because I really mean it. Honestly. Oh, sure, I'll probably still bristle at something she says or does down the line, but it's hard to ridicule a player who has finally managed to be the best that she can be. When I get angry with some players -- and I surely have with Clijsters, who I WAS a big fan of when she first showed up on the scene in the late 1990's -- it's usually because they find a way to manage to cheat themselves and their careers by not living up to their potential.

(Caroline, you're on notice... but you've still got a great deal of probationary time before any sentences are forced to be imposed.)

That was surely the case in Clijsters' first career. But all that has changed in her second, and only highlighted even more by Henin's failure to do the same in her comeback. Of course, Henin HAD the career in 1.0 that Clijsters has only now fashioned for herself, and could still manage to build up even more the rest of the 2011 season. If THIS Kim had been around all along she not only would have been given more slack in this space, but it really wouldn't even have been necessary.

Hmmm... so, I guess that's how a Kim-Grinchian heart grows "three sizes" on this day after "learning to love Barbie" and not hating himself for it.

And, thus, a momentous page is turned in the Backspin/Barbie relationship. As I type this sentence, it's hard to see how it could ever be the same again. Of course, tomorrow IS another day.

(evil laugh)

I mean, as long as she doesn't follow through with that off-hand promise after last year's U.S. Open that she'd shave her head if she won another slam. If she did that, well, I don't even want to think what it might mean for the future.

(Uh-oh.)





*SLAM CHAMPIONS WITHOUT SERENA IN THE DRAW*
[since Williams won '99 U.S. Open]
2000 Roland Garros - Mary Pierce
2002 Australian Open - Jennifer Capriati
2003 U.S. Open -- Justine Henin-Hardenne
2004 Australian Open - Justine Henin-Hardenne
2005 Roland Garros - Justine Henin-Hardenne
2006 Roland Garros - Justine Henin-Hardenne
2006 Wimbledon - Amelie Mauresmo
2010 U.S. Open - Kim Clijsters
2011 Australian Open - KIM CLIJSTERS

*BACK-TO-BACK US/AO TITLES - since 1988*
1988-89 Steffi Graf
1989-90 Steffi Graf
1991-92 Monica Seles
1992-93 Monica Seles
1993-94 Steffi Graf
1997-98 Martina Hingis
2002-03 Serena Williams
2003-04 Justine Henin-Hardenne
2008-09 Serena Williams
2010-11 KIM CLIJSTERS

*AUSTRALIAN OPEN TITLES - ACTIVE*
5...Serena Williams, USA - 2003,2005,2007,2009,2010
1...Maria Sharapova, RUS - 2008
1...KIM CLIJSTERS, BEL - 2011

*MOST CAREER SLAM TITLES - ACTIVE*
[singles]*
13...Serena Williams
7...Venus Williams
4...KIM CLIJSTERS
3...Maria Sharapova
[singles-doubles-mixed]
27...Serena Williams [13-12-2]
21...Venus Williams [7-12-2]
10...Cara Black [0-5-5]
9...Lisa Raymond [0-5-4]
6...KIM CLIJSTERS [4-2-0]
6...Liezel Huber [0-4-2]

*AO "IT GIRL" WINNERS*
2006 Samantha Stosur, AUS
2007 Shahar Peer, ISR
2008 Casey Dellacqua, AUS
2009 Carla Suarez-Navarro, ESP
2010 Maria Kirilenko, RUS
2011 An-Sophie Mestach, BEL (jr.)

*BRYAN TWINS - ATP TITLES STANDING*
[all-time slam titles - team, AO-RG-WI-US]
11...Mark Woodforde & Todd Woodbridge, 1992-00 [2-1-6-2]
10...BOB & MIKE BRYAN, 2003-10 [4-1-1-3]
5...Jacco Eltingh & Paul Haarhuis, 1994-98 [1-2-1-1]
[all-time tour titles - team]
68...BOB & MIKE BRYAN
61...Mark Woodforde & Todd Woodbridge
57...Peter Fleming & John McEnroe
57...Bob Hewitt & Frew McMillian
[total career combined slam titles - active]
17...BOB BRYAN
16...Roger Federer
14...Leander Paes
12...MIKE BRYAN
11...Mahesh Bhupathi
9...Rafael Nadal



*WOMEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#3 Kim Clijsters/BEL def. #9 Li Na/CHN 3-6/6-3/6-3

*MEN'S SINGLES FINAL*
#5 Andy Murray/GBR vs. #3 Novak Djokovic/SRB

*WOMEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA) def. #12 Azarenka/Kirilenko (BLR/RUS) 2-6/7-5/6-1

*MEN'S DOUBLES FINAL*
#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #3 Bhupathi/Paes (IND/IND) 6-3/6-4

*MIXED DOUBLES FINAL*
Chan/Hanley (TPE/AUS) vs. #2 Srebotnik/Nestor (SLO/CAN)

*GIRLS SINGLES FINAL*
#2 An-Sophie Mestach/BEL def. #5 Monica Puig/PUR 6-4/6-2

*BOYS SINGLES FINAL*
#1 Jiri Vesely/CZE def. Luke Seville/AUS 6-0/6-3

*GIRLS DOUBLES FINAL*
#6 An-Sophie Mestach/Demi Schuurs (BEL/NED) def. Eri Hozumi/Miyu Kato (JPN/JPN) 6-2/6-3

*BOYS DOUBLES FINAL*
#2 Filip Horansky/Jiri Vesely (SVK/CZE) def. #3 Ben Wagland/Andrew Whittington (AUS/AUS) 6-4/6-4




TOP QUALIFIER: Vesna Manasieva/RUS
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #3 Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #9 Li Na/CHN
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): #3 Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Sloane Stephens/USA def. Liana-Gabriela Ungur/ROU 7-6/1-6/8-6
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - Ekaterina Makarova/RUS d. #19 Ana Ivanovic/SRB 3-6/6-4/10-8 (on 6th MP, 1:31 3rd set)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA d. #23 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS 6-4/1-6/16-14 (Open era record 4:44, saved 6 MP)
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): SF - #9 Li Na/CHN d. #1 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN 3-6/7-5/6-3 (saved 1 MP)
TOP NIGHT MATCH:: 3rd Rd. - #25 Petra Kvitova/CZE d. #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS 7-6/6-3
=============================
FIRST WINNER: Evgeniya Rodina/RUS (1st Rd. - def. WC Olivia Rogowska/AUS)
FIRST SEED OUT: #28 Daniela Hantuchova/SVK (1st Rd. - lost to Kulikova/RUS)
UPSET QUEENS: Russians
REVELATION LADIES: Czechs
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Vesna Manasieva/RUS (3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: #2 (jr) An-Sophie Mestach/BEL
MS. OPPORTUNITY: #9 Li Na/CHN
COMEBACK PLAYER: #12 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
CRASH & BURN: #7 Jelena Jankovic/SRB (2nd Rd. - lost to Peng/CHN)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #6 Francesca Schiavone/ITA (saved 6 MP vs. Kuznetsova/RUS in 4th Rd.)
LAST SHEILA STANDING: #5 Samantha Stosur/AUS (3rd Rd.)
LADY OF THE EVENING: #30 Andrea Petkovic/GER
DOUBLES STARS: Gisela Dulko & Flavia Pennetta, ARG/ITA
JUNIOR BREAKOUTS: Japanese girls




All for now. More tomorrow.

5 Comments:

Blogger Duncan D. Horne said...

Nice to see Kim win something important outside of the U.S.A. A worthy champion.

Keep up this nice tennis blog, I'm following

Follow me too at:

www.duncaninkuantan.blogspot.com

Sun Jan 30, 04:47:00 AM EST  
Blogger Zidane said...

By the way, Zheng alone was the first Chinese woman to reach a Slam semifinal: Wimbledon 2008, I believe. There's at least ONE thing that Li wasn't the first Chinese player to achieve!

Sun Jan 30, 02:15:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

You know what, Zidane, you're right! I should have remember that! Serves me right for actually using an ESPN2 graphic without checking my own mental files.

(And thus ends my shots at ESPN for this AO... well, then again, I DO still have the Dorothy Tour Awards to put together.) :)

Sun Jan 30, 07:47:00 PM EST  
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