TENNIS: Li Na still joking after finals defeat

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Li sees silver lining after grand slam heartbreak

Chinese ace runs out of gas in face of composed Clijsters

 

Christopher Johnson in Melbourne

Jan 30, 2011

 

Though she lost a grand slam final to a superior player, Li Na had many reasons to leave the Australian Open with a smile and a few parting jokes as well.

 

First of all, she became the first Chinese woman ever to reach a grand slam singles final, and won US$1.1 million, a third of her career earnings; Kim Clijsters’ victory cheque was US$2.2 million.

 

After losing the first two games without a point, Li won the first set 6-3 over veteran champion Clijsters, with a composure that almost lulled a crowd of 15,000 into a Chinese mid-summer night’s dream. But Li lost the last two sets 6-3, 6-3, and lost all four points in the last game. “After the match, back in the locker room, I made a joke,” Li said, beaming as always after a match. “Tennis should only play one set.”

Li, who is expected to move up to number seven in the rankings, played well enough to beat most players, and she played her game, trying to attack and win the championship rather than sitting back and letting her opponent lose it.

“I think I played great tennis. She played better than me,” Li said. “I’m still happy what I did today. I’m proud of myself.”

In a slugfest that often resembled a men’s final, Li and Clijsters battled to pin each other into corners, with deep, heavy groundstrokes and charges to the net. While Li hit the ball as consistently hard as any player on tour, according to Clijsters, Li had trouble nailing overheads and high backhand volleys, often at crucial moments.

Calling it “an intense match”, Clijsters said she tried to break Li’s rhythm by mixing in slices, looping high balls, and hard flat shots. “I saw her get aggravated, and just tried to hang in there.”

Despite fans disrupting the match by using camera flashes and calling balls out, Li often seemed oblivious to the national prestige riding on the game, and hollered much less in the Wuhan dialect to her husband and coach Jiang Shan than in previous matches. “Today, people ask me, Are you nervous? I say, No. I just feel like it’s the first match. Just a match, just go play.”

She did criticise some Chinese fans, however. “I don’t know why after I come to the final, so many Chinese coaches coaching me on the court,” she said. “They can talk but not during the point. Maybe they were so excited.”

After leading 3-2 in the second set, Li lost six games in a row. She sputtered in the third set, running out of gas as her fans chanted jia you, or add fuel. Yet she still went for winners, making 40 unforced errors compared to 26 by Clijsters.

Saying it felt like she was playing in Clijsters’ homeland of Belgium, Li won the respect of the crowd and the tennis world over the course of the tournament.

During the award ceremony, she smiled at Clijsters’ own attempts at stand-up comedy, and pledged her love for Jiang. “I’ve made many jokes about my husband,” Li told the crowd. “But it doesn’t matter if you are fat or skinny, or handsome or ugly, I will always follow you, always love you.”

Though she said it “doesn’t matter if I win or lose because I tried my best at tennis”, she had to fight back tears as she gazed at the winner’s trophy just out of her reach.

“I thought the [runner-up] trophy is very big,” she said later. “If I take the trophy, maybe I couldn’t see my face. Actually, I wanted to take the other one.”

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