Can Li Na handle magnitude of moment?

January, 28, 2011
1/28/11
4:52
AM ET


You know the old saying, "A billion Chinese can't be wrong." It's settled then, Li Na wins the Australian Open, because the bulk of her countrymen probably believe (or at least hope) that she can. All that stands in the way is No. 3 seed Kim Clijsters, who seems unable to win any major other than the U.S. Open.

But Clijsters, 27, is a veteran Grand Slam competitor, appearing in her eighth final (she's won three of seven). You can bet she knows a few things about how to play the big ones. She's also a former No. 1, who won the U.S. Open on similar hard courts three times, and most pundits had her as the odds-on favorite to win in Melbourne ever since they learned that Serena Williams would not defend her title.

This time -- and thus far -- Clijsters has not disappointed. She hasn't lost a set at this Australian Open. She's played aggressively, camping right on the baseline to take the ball on the rise and pressure her opponents right from the get-go. At times, her forehand has looked ferocious. Li, seeded No. 9, has never been in a major final (Clijsters was the only semifinalist with a Grand Slam title to her name), so maybe Clijsters is better prepared to handle the occasion and deal with her nerves.

That's a big maybe, though, and Li might be able to do what none of Clijsters' previous opponents managed: take advantage of those inevitable, puzzling lapses that are as big a part of Clijsters' game nowadays as those athletic splits.

Clijsters has exposed a soft underbelly to most of her opponents and gotten away with it. That's partly because of the quality of the opposition. Until Clijsters ran into No. 2 seed Vera Zvonareva, her only seeded opponent was No. 12 Agnieszka Radwanska, a woman who has little with which to hurt Clijsters besides her consistency, and who is just coming back from foot surgery.

By contrast, Li has beaten two women seeded above her. Working back from the semis, she took out three seeds: No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 30 Andrea Petkovic and a very tough No. 8, Victoria Azarenka. That seasoning was evident in her match with Wozniacki, which was played at a very high level by both women.

Clijsters is 4-2 against Li, but the Chinese girl has won two of the past three, including the recent final in Sydney. Li has every reason to feel comfortable and confident, because she's really cracking the forehand. And she handled the big points against world No. 1 Wozniacki beautifully.

Clijsters and Li both have made more unforced errors than winners; their plus/minus rating is nearly identical, with Li at minus-22 and Clijsters at minus-23. Yet here they are in the final, unforced errors and all. It tells you that both women like to take chances and hit out, and it suggests that they play big points well. Li has hit 28 more winners in this tournament than Clijsters, and this might be one of these matches where two or three great shots have a disproportionate effect on the outcome.

Given Clijsters' penchant for running off the rails, at least temporarily, I have to believe that Li will get her chances to break, or to recoup breaks. After all, up to this point, against tougher competition, Li scored four more breaks of serve than has Clijsters (32-28), and Clijsters' statistics are skewed somewhat by that ghastly, stat-padding beating she put on Dinara Safina in the first round (Clijsters ran the table, 6-0, 6-0).

I have just one big question about Li: At some point, if she's in a position to win the match, the full magnitude of what she's about to accomplish will dawn on her, and suddenly those 1.3 billion (for that's the latest, revised figure) Chinese could become more of a millstone than a source of motivation. Li's performance has historic resonances, and don't think she doesn't know it.

My guess is that, barring a complete freeze-up by Li, she will have her chance to make history. Clijsters has always been beatable away from Flushing Meadow, and she's looked beatable here.

Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for more than 30 years, most of them with TENNIS.com and TENNIS Magazine, where he is a senior editor and author of the popular blog, Peter Bodo's TennisWorld. A two-time WTA writer of the year, Bodo has also written numerous books, including Tennis For Dummies (with U.S. Davis Cup captain, Patrick McEnroe).

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