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Monday, January 23, 2012

Clijsters Wins Mental Battle over Li

The rematch of last year's Aussie Open final between Kim Clijsters and Li Na went to Clijsters again, but it looked for certain that her time down under was up. Clijsters won because she weathered her bad patches of tennis better mentally and bounced back. Clijsters won slightly on the mental game over Li and it was enough to pull her through.

Clijsters was struggling in the first set with the ball striking of Li. She was being outplayed from the baseline totally and when she turned her ankle her body language made you think she was finished. Imagine the pressure she was feeling. Not only is she trying to win another slam, but it is her last Australian Open. Further, she is faced with doing it with a turned ankle, and even if she does win who knows how her ankle will heal for the next match?

Putting the pressures aside as best as she could Clijsters clawed her way back in to the second set and sent it to a tiebreak. Yet, it seemed like her fate would finally catch up to her. Li was ahead 5-1 in the tiebreak. Then, something unusual happened, at least in my viewpoint. Li made an unforced error on the 5-1 point and looked upset. She yelled out, probably at her husband and coach. Li's negativity belied what seemed to be a big edge. It made me think she was feeling the pressure and hoping that the match was over! When she needed to stay composed the most, Li's body language betrayed her. I'm not sure if Clijsters recognized it at the time, but when you are ahead you don't want to let your opponent know you are feeling the pressure.

Li continued to throw in unforced errors off the forehand and lost the tiebreak after having four match points! On those match points Li played tentative and did not hit the ball with conviction. Again it looked for all the world she was hoping that Clijsters would miss. She did not. Clijsters just put the ball in play and allowed Li to self-destruct. Sometimes just putting the ball in play is the best solution, but it is not when you are trying to finish a surging opponent off!

The third set was played with more nerves and more tentative ball striking. Clijsters handled the third set situation better despite the ankle issue and jumped all over Li early on. Li never seemed to recover from losing the four match points. Her shoulders were down and she played tentative; easily missing shots that she put away in the first set.

The Clijsters-Li rematch was again another reminder that the mental game becomes all-important when two evenly match competitors compete on a big stage. Clijsters won because she bounced back from her struggles. Li will look forward to defending her French Open championship by putting this tough loss behind her.

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