MELBOURNE, Australia — Kim Clijsters believes she’s now earned the nickname she had for years in Australia.
“I finally feel like you guys can call me ‘Aussie Kim’ because I won the title,” a teary Clijsters said after beating China’s Li Na 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 Saturday night to capture her first Australian Open. “It’s nice to finally get it this year.”
Clijsters lost the 2004 Australian Open final to Justine Henin and lost four times in the semifinals. This was Clijsters’ fourth Grand Slam tournament championship, but the first apart from the U.S. Open.
“To win it in this way means a lot,” she told a TV interviewer after the match. “This one to me, is the one. When I think back on my childhood, I remember watching the Australian Open and seeing Monica Seles win many times. I think they used to go up into the stands. I remember her doing her speech there, and it was something that I was just amazed by. It seemed like such a fairy tale.”
Li was trying to become the first Asian to win a major, and the final was far from a smooth ride. She complained to the chair umpire about the Chinese fans and was bothered by photographers’ flashes in the courtside pits. The outbursts from all over the arena were jarring.
“They shouted ‘finish her off!’ sometimes even when we were hitting the ball,” Li said through a translator. “I thought, ‘How can they do this?’”
In doubles, Bob and Mike Bryan successfully defended their title, beating Indian stars Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi 6-3, 6-4 for their fifth Australian crown and 10th Grand Slam championship.
Clijsters didn’t win her first major until 2005 — after she’d lost four finals. All the while, the Australian public regarded her as one of their own. And not only because she was once engaged to Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian who won two Grand Slam titles and was ranked No. 1 before Federer began his run. Clijsters is laid back and resilient, and the fans in Melbourne noticed.
“In the past year people have been so supportive,” she said. “They have been amazing and I really appreciate it. I always felt bad that I (didn’t) give something back — once I got to the final and lost to Justine — and now I feel maybe worthy to be ‘Aussie Kim.’”
With no Aussies making it past the third round at Melbourne Park, Clijsters clearly was a popular choice at Melbourne Park.
She had said that 2011 would be her last full season on tour. Now, the 27-year-old Belgian is already saying she’d like to defend her Australian title and possibly play at the London Olympics.
Clijsters’ daughter Jada was on court when her mother collected the 2009 U.S. Open trophy — in her third tournament back from a 2½-year break from the tour to get married and have a child. On Saturday night, Jada was in the players’ lounge, running and jumping into the arms of her father and uncle.
Clijsters started convincingly, winning the first eight points for a 2-0 lead. Then Li rallied. She got her forehand working and fired winners with her two-handed backhand.
Clijsters looked unsettled, dropping serve four straight times. She then decided to mix it up after Li won the first set and took a 3-2 lead in the second. That’s when Li’s game started to fold. Perhaps the pressure of being the first Chinese in a Grand Slam final was getting to her.
Li reached the Australian semifinals last year, taking eventual champion Serena Williams to two tiebreak sets. She rallied from 0-5 down in the first set to win the Sydney International final over Clijsters in a warmup tournament two weeks ago. This time was clearly different.
Clijsters sensed Li was getting upset with Chinese spectators late in the second set. In the third, Li asked chair umpire Alison Lang to intervene, saying: “Can you tell the Chinese, don’t teach me how to play tennis?”
Lang asked the crowd for quiet — twice. It didn’t work.
Li became increasingly rattled. After she held for 3-2 in the second set, Clijsters upped the ante, winning he next three games to regain control. In the third set, Clijsters broke to lead 4-1, and the match was all but over.
Li was not sure to what extent her excellent showing in Australia registered at home. China’s official broadcaster said 15 million watched the live broadcast of the final. Li said that was hardly more than Australia, a nation of 22 million.
“Tens of millions is nothing. Over 80 percent of the people in Australia watch tennis; we can’t compete,” she said.
Li is the first Chinese to win a WTA Tour title and the first to enter the top 10. Still, she does not see herself as a trailblazer.
“My character is not suitable for it,” she said. “I just do the best I can. I hope Chinese tennis can grow faster, and I hope more people can get involved. It’s like a pyramid, more people playing, and you can achieve higher on the pyramid’s top.”