My column, reporting from Australia, on AOL Fanhouse
MELBOURNE, Australia — This could be the best unretirement in sports history. Michael Jordan came back to win three championships, but he was already the best ever. George Foreman won the title again, fat and old.
But Kim Clijsters didn’t just get back to where she had been before. She has surpassed the first Clijsters by far. She has reshaped her spot in history.
Clijsters won the Australian Open Saturday, beating Li Na 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. It was her third major title since coming back to the tour following a retirement/maternity leave. She has won three of the five majors she has played in since coming back, including the past two.
Is she the best player in the world? And no, I’m not talking about rankings. Someone should take the tour’s computer out back and shoot it. It will still have, believe it or not, Caroline Wozniacki No. 1, even though she still has never won a major.
What I’m asking is if Clijsters is better now than Serena Williams? Williams has always dominated Clijsters. But the only time they’ve played since Clijsters’ comeback, Clijsters 2.0 won in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinal.
I’m going to say that no, Clijsters isn’t quite there. But it’s a legitimate debate now. Willliams, out since July with a foot injury, has been out of sight.
Clijsters is putting her out of mind. And something has to be said for being there.
Tennis fans can start talk now, too, about a Kim Slam, whether she can win all four majors in a row. The answer to that one is yes, she can. And that’s an incredible change from Clijsters’ first time around on tour.
The thing no one remembers anymore, because Clijsters has erased the memory, is that the first time around, she was a great player who was a choker in big moments. Now, she dominates them.
“I was always one of the players who could win, and when I was younger, it kind of overwhelmed me a little,” she said. “The pressure and the nerves kind of got in the way of what I was trying to do out there.
“Now that I’m older, the pressure leaves as soon as I go through that door.”
Li was going to be a beautiful story, and in defeat, she probably still was anyway. She was the first Chinese player to reach a major final, and a win Saturday would have figured to kick off a tennis boom in a massive, untapped population for the sport.
Tennis has tried to target China, even putting mandatory tournaments there at the end of the year when players want a break. Some people wondered if this might be the most-watched tennis match ever.
And when you walked around Rod Laver Arena before the match, and looked through the stands during it, you saw Chinese flags everywhere, and handmade Chinese signs.
“I’m proud of myself,” she said.
Li had won over tennis fans with a warm and joking manner, and a rebelliousness that flew in the face of stereotypes. The target of many of her jokes had been her husband. She said she couldn’t sleep before her semifinal match because he was snoring so loud. She said the next night he would be sleeping in the bathroom.
After the match Saturday, though, she pointed out her husband to the crowd, and said this over the p.a.: “It doesn’t matter if you are fat or skinny, handsome or ugly, I’ll always follow you and I’ll always love you.”
Isn’t there something kind of funny about that, too?
Well, Clijsters might be the only viable, true champion in women’s tennis. She showed it Saturday not just by winning, but by coming back when she was getting crushed.
She went to Plan B, and then Plan C, and finally she landed on one that worked. This was a match won by a champion, done the way only a champion can do it.
Being a champion means more than just the record books. It’s also about guts, about an ability to come through in the toughest moments.
Li was swinging full-out on her groundstrokes in the first set, and Clijsters was trying to bash back. But Li was just too strong. She ran down a forehand and slapped a crosscourt passing shot to win the first set 6-3.
“She did everything better than me in that first set,” Clijsters said. “Her groundstrokes were heavier, deeper. She served better, she returned better. I tried to just think, after that first set, what can I do differently to try to break her rhythm”
It was patience in thought. And Clijsters finally settled on looping some backhands up high to Li, and following that up by crushing shots. She mixed up speeds and spins and directions. Li started to struggle, and then began to complain about noise in the stands.
Clijsters knew right then that Li was aggravated. It was a weakness, and Clijsters went for the kill.
Kim? Is that the Clijsters tennis knows as so nice? Going for the kill?
This is the new version.
Let me throw a little cold water onto the story. A little reality. While Clijsters is clearly better than she was before, her confidence and comfort isn’t entirely about her upward direction.
It’s also about the downward direction of women’s tennis. Where her nervous moments of the past were against such stars as Justine Henin, now they are against a lower level, of Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva and Li.
Whatever, you can only prove yourself against the competition that is there. Clijsters was always in the shadow of her countryman, Henin. And it was symbolic that Clijsters won this tournament a few days after Henin lost and then retired again.
Clijsters, now 27, said she plans to stick with this at least through the 2012 London Olympics.
By then, who knows how great she might be.
— Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch