There are some countries that seem to have just unbelievable tennis histories....there are other countries who are well represented on tour, but are not known as the best players in the world....and then there are countries that have never been known for tennis. A nation that fit the last of these descriptions entering the 2011 season was China. Most people would have been hard-pressed to name an extremely successful Chinese tennis player before this year. There just has not been a top tennis player in the history of Chinese tennis. At the 2011 Australian Open, Li Na did her best to change the world's perception of China as a tennis country. In one of the great feel-good stories of the tennis year, Li Na reached the Australian Open Final, her first Grand Slam Final. In order to finish off her Cinderella run, however, she would have to get past seasoned veteran Kim Clijsters, and the resulting match is our 2011 WTA Match of the Year.
At the beginning of this match, Li Na just looked overwhelmed and over-matched. However, after losing the first two games, Li started to get into rhythm, and really started hitting her ground strokes well, especially her forehand. Next thing everyone knew, the two players were back on serve. After a couple of tough service holds by both players, Li was finally able to break through on Clijsters's serve with some well-placed forehands and serves. Clijsters had opportunities to break back, but was unable to as Li took the first set 6-3. Suddenly, Li Na was just one set away from putting China on the tennis map and winning her first major. Could this feel-good story really have a perfect Cinderella ending?
The second set began with both players holding serve rather easily. However, towards the middle of the set, Li started to hit more errors from both sides and started to get a little visibly frustrated. Her game has always been considered hit-or-miss. Because she hits so hard from both sides, LI often goes on little spurts where errors seem to be coming from everywhere. This was the last thing she could afford to let happen at this point in the match, and Clijsters continued to play consistently and broke the Chinese veteran late in the second set. Li did not have a response in her, and Clijsters evened the match by winning the second set 6-3. This final would come down to one final set between Kim Clijsters and Li Na.
As soon as the third set started, it was easy to tell that Clijsters had the momentum and that Li would have to play lights-off in order to give herself a chance to win. She was simply not able to do this, and Clijsters, with her consistency from the baseline and her ability to hit winners when she needs to, jumped out to an early lead in the decisive set. The breaks of serve started to mount down the stretch in the third set, but Li was not able to break and hold in back-to-back games, which is what she would have needed to do to get herself back into the match. After all was said and done, Kim Clijsters won the third set 6-3 to become the 2011 Australian Open Champion.
As for Li Na, she would go on to win her first Grand Slam at the 2011 French Open, and Chinese tennis was officially back on the map. She could not keep up the momentum for the remainder of the year, as she struggled in the year's last two Majors. Nevertheless, for the first part of 2011, every tennis fan had a soft spot for Li Na and we were all cheering for her to do well. She was playing for more than herself. Li Na was playing for her country, and she did not disappoint in any way, shape, or form.