1.3 billion pairs of eyes trained on underdog Li
New-found confidence can help Chinese ace to historic slam title
In some ways, today’s women’s singles final at the Australian Open seems like a mismatch: Li Na, 1.3 billion Chinese, and the global tennis marketing machine, versus 27-year-old mother Kim Clijsters from Belgium.
Look beyond race and appearances, and Li and Clijsters are almost mirror images of each other. They are both lovable, down-to-earth women who are much older than most of their opponents. They have both lost fathers, and have built supportive, family-like teams around them.
Clijsters takes care of her baby Jada back in the hotel; Li stays with her husband and coach Jiang Shan, her sweetheart since age 12 in Wuhan. Li and Clijsters are both mentally tough, offensive-minded players who will try to impose their games on each other.
“Who’s going to be a little bit more powerful and with fewer unforced errors is going to have the chance to win,” Clijsters said, adding she would fight for every shot, “and then we’ll see”.
If pressure means anything, it is all on Li, hailed by Chinese Tennis Association boss Sun Jinfang as a pioneer and national sports hero on a par with NBA great Yao Ming and Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang.
“There is always a pioneer pushing things forward in his or her time, and Li is a sporting pioneer of her time,” Sun told the China Daily. “I think she has an international standing similar to Yao Ming or Liu Xiang. She has been undervalued a little bit due to the relatively low profile of tennis in China.”
Li is trying to win China’s first ever grand slam in singles, and the whole world is hoping she will spark a tennis boom in China. The world No11, however, said she had not been reading the internet or news about her, including the comparisons to Yao and Liu. “Yesterday, I got a text message from the federation boss,” Li quipped. “She said, `Oh, well done. You come back, I will pay for dinner.’ I said, `What, only dinner?'”
If experience means anything, Clijsters has the advantage. Although 16 months older, Li, 28, has never been on this stage before. Her semi-final victory over top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki was her best result at a slam. “I don’t have experience in the final, so I don’t know,” Li said.
Clijsters, who has 40 career titles, played her first grand slam a decade ago, and has won the US Open three times on a surface similar to the new centre court at Rod Laver Arena. “I remember very well the night before just not being able to sleep and just being so nervous,” Clijsters said, recalling her first grand slam final when she was 18. “It’s overwhelming if you just think about the fact. I was overwhelmed by all the emotions.”
Although Clijsters leads Li 4-2 in head-to-head matches, Li won two weeks ago in a final in Sydney, after trailing 5-0 in the first set. “I wish this time I will not start 5-0 down,” Li said yesterday. “I beat her last time. It doesn’t mean anything here.”
Clijsters said she was not 100 per cent ready in Sydney, and Li played “incredibly well”. She will try to forget that and instead remember trouncing Li 6-2, 6-4 in the US Open quarter-finals in 2009, and on grass in the Wimbledon quarter-finals in 2006.
Li, who joked this week about playing “for the prize money”, has more financial incentive. She has won US$3.4 million in her career, compared with Clijster’s US$21.5 million, but victory today could be worth countless endorsements and rewards in the world’s fastest growing major economy. And she might have momentum and destiny in her favour.
“I think she has that little extra confidence now, and her game’s improved and she’s gotten even fitter,” Clijsters said. “I think you see the improvements in her tennis level, but also I think mentally you see a big difference from, let’s say, a couple of years ago before I retired.”
Finally, Li the underdog is likely to have more fan support in Rod Laver Arena, despite Clijsters being the perennial crowd favourite Down Under and known as “Aussie Kim” because of a previous relationship with Australian player Lleyton Hewitt.
Li said she had 44 messages on her phone after her semi-final win, including one from her best friend who was speechless and crying, and another from her mother, a “non-sports person” who is too nervous to watch her matches, saying: “Well done. I’m waiting for you at home.”
Sun said: “She always gave us miracles … she is capable of another.”