For Novak Djokovic, his Australian Open triumph could be the start of a new era; for Kim Clijsters, her victory could be the beginning of the end.
As Djokovic hugged the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup for the second time in his career, he felt like a new man. He had not so much beaten Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, he had outplayed him in almost every rally. Coming hard on the heels of his thrashing of Roger Federer in the semi finals, Djokovic could not have been happier.
“Both of those guys play their best tennis on the hard courts, as well as I do,” Djokovic said. “But to be able to win against those players in straight sets is incredible. This final was a great match. From the start to the last point, I did what I intended of doing tactically, what I talked with my coach, what I prepared for. To be able to win in straight sets against a player like Andy Murray in the finals of Grand Slam, it makes my success even bigger.”
When Djokovic won the title in 2008, he was, as he put, just a 20-year-old kid hitting the ball as hard as he could. Three years on, and having led Serbia to victory in the Davis Cup last December, he is a better player and a more experienced competitor. He would not dream of saying that he is better than Federer and Rafael Nadal – or even as good – but now he feels he is ready to challenge the Big Two at every grand slam championship.
“I feel a better player now than I was three years ago,” Djokovic explained, “because I think that physically I’m stronger, I’m faster, mentally I’m more motivated on the court. I know how to react in certain moments and I know how to play on a big stage.
“Still Rafa and Roger are the two best players in the world. No question about that. You can’t compare my success and Murray’s success to their success. They’re the two most dominant players in the game for a while. All the credit to them. But it’s nice to see that there are some new players in the later stages of Grand Slams fighting for a title. That’s all I can say.”
Nadal’s run came to a painful and disappointing end in the semi finals. He suffered a micro-tear in his hamstring as he took on David Ferrer – and against one of the fastest men on the circuit, not even the world No.1 stood a chance with a gammy leg. As for Federer, he took his defeat on the chin but balked at the thought that having Murray and Djokovic in the final signalled a changing of the guard. “We’ll see in six months,” he said, obviously looking forward to his return to Wimbledon and Nadal’s return to Roland Garros.
As for Murray, he was resigned to his fate: Djokovic had been better in all departments and he could not do much about it. It was the Scot’s third grand slam final defeat and after the emotion of last year’s loss to Federer, this time he was just tired and disappointed.
“He played great,” Murray said. “I would have liked to have played better but I think he would have beaten every other player on the tour if he played like that tonight. He served well. He didn’t make many mistakes from the back of the court. He moved really, really well. He hit the ball very clean. That was it.”
If Clijsters played the way she played through the two weeks of the Australian Open, she, too, could beat anyone on any day on any surface. But she does not want to.
Her impressive 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over Li Na in the final earned her her fourth major title but her first in Melbourne. Now, after years of being called Aussie Kim (on account of once being Lleyton Hewitt’s girlfriend), she felt like she really belonged in one of her favourite places in the world. “I finally feel like you guys can call me Aussie Kim now because I won the title,” she said.
While she said she would be back next year to defend her trophy, she thinks this is probably her last full year on the road. She would like to play at the Olympics in 2012 and then she wants to have another baby. Tennis is a great way to make a living but being a mum is a more attractive prospect in the long run. When she left tennis in 2007 to have her first child, she never thought she would be back. This time, she knows she will be hanging up her racket for good when she leaves to have another baby.
“When I started again, I kind of had the Olympics in my mind” she said. “I wanted to try to keep going till then. I obviously never expected things to be going so well so quickly. I thought it was going to take a little bit more time to get back into the rhythm or get back into my routine of traveling with a family and everything. But I do think this is probably my last full season that I’ll be playing. I would like to try and keep going until the Olympics. I’ve never played the Olympics, which is in a year and a half time, or a little under a year and a half. Yeah, so and then we’ll see after that.”
Li, meanwhile, was enjoying every moment of her time in Melbourne, even if she had just lost the final. She had scythed her way through the draw to become the first Chinese woman to reach a major final and, throughout, she had cracked jokes, made fun of her husband and coach, Jiang Shan (apparently he snores too loudly and only lets her use the credit card when she wins), and become a superstar in the space of a fortnight.
But after two weeks of teasing and mockery, Li finally gave her husband a break. “You see that guy in yellow shirt,” she said to the crowd in the Rod Laver Arena after the final. “He’s my husband. I make a lot of jokes on him this week but I want to tell him – doesn’t matter if you fat or skinny, handsome or ugly; I always follow you and I always love you.”
Few women can play tennis better than Li when she is on song – Clijsters is something of a rarity – but absolutely no one can make a runner’s up speech like the lady from Wuhan.