You can finally call her "Aussie Kim."
Much loved in Australia but never successful in the country's Grand Slam tournament, Kim Clijsters finally broke through to win her first Australian Open Saturday night in Melbourne, winning a back-and-forth final with China's Li Na, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. It was the Belgian's fourth major and firmly establishes her as the top player in tennis, healthy Serena Williams or not.
Clijsters was able to weather Li Na's first set victory by changing her pace, mixing in looping shots with attacking groundstrokes, which kept the Chinese player off balance and unable to adjust. Playing in her first Slam final and with the hopes of 100 million Chinese watching back home on television, Li Na appeared to crumble under the pressure. She complained about noisy fans and flashbulbs and looked resigned to the loss after getting broken for a second time in the third set.
After the match, she showed why she's become a fan favorite over the fortnight, affectionately poking fun at her husband and brushing off the loss with a smile and refreshing practicality ("she played better than me"). Though nearly 29, Li Na figures to be a contender in majors for the foreseeable future. With the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova in decline, Justine Henin retired and Caroline Wozniacki still a Grand Slam outsider, there will be more opportunities to become the first ever Asian winner of a major.
For Clijsters, the win continues one of the best comebacks the sport has ever seen. At the time of her first retirement, Clijsters was defined by her near misses. She was 1-4 in Grand Slam finals and 5-7 in major semifinals. Since returning to the tour in 2009, the Belgian has won three of the five majors she's entered and sports a 27-2 record.
When this tournament began, most of the talk centered around who wasn't there. Without defending champion Serena Williams in the field, would there be an asterisk for the winner? That seems like a long time ago. Since then Caroline Wozniacki established a new identity and is on her way to becoming a crossover star, Li Na emerged as a breakout player with a country of 1 billion firmly in her corner and Kim Clijsters finally captured a Grand Slam off of American soil.
Turns out the best tennis player in the world was in Melbourne after all.