A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Clijsters the Hustler

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Kim Clijsters is your 2011 Australian Open champion, and she won the final over Li Na in a manner that epitomizes her career. For me it brings to mind an exchange from the 1961 classic, The Hustler:

Bert Gordon: I don’t think there’s a pool player alive shoots better pool than I saw you shoot the other night at Ames. You got talent.
Fast Eddie: So I got talent. So what beat me?
Bert Gordon: Character.

Fast Eddie begins the movie as an up and coming pool shark. He gets the opportunity to play Minnesota Fats, the biggest baddest pool shark around, and he has Fats on the ropes, but Fats just won’t go down. Eventually Eddie cracks and Fats storms back taking every cent Eddie has. In the parlance of the film, Fats has “character“, Eddie does not. Eventually Fast Eddie goes through his own tragedies, and comes back full of “character”, and becomes unbeatable. (Of course, he’s also full of self-loathing and anger, but let’s just agree there’s more than one way to get character, eh?)

Clijsters was the nice girl, who always finished 2nd when it really mattered. Specifically, he always seemed to lose to fellow countrywoman, and rival from youth, Justine Henin. She lost her first four major championships, 3 of those to Henin. From when Clijsters and Henin reached their primes as tennis pros in 2003 until Clijsters’ (temporary) retirement, Henin beat  Clijsters all 5 times they played at Grand Slam tournaments, despite the fact that the two players otherwise seemed quite equal both in their matches not in Grand Slam tournaments, and their performance against other players. And so Clijsters developed a reputation for being too nice for her own good (while Henin developed the rep as a cuthroat bitch).

Kim retired, had a baby and did some growing up, and then un-retired. She came back a superior player, with toughness that more than made up for any loss in athleticism. She wins the tight matches now, and while in her previous career she won only one major, she has won 3 of the 5 Grand Slam tournaments she’s entered since her comeback.

Her win over Li echoed this change in mentality. Li took the first set play extremely well, but over time Li’s performance fell off, and Clijsters started pushing Li around the court. Most telling was Li’s increasing complaints to the referee about the crowd and photographers, as well as a series of line challenges that really weren’t debatable. Li had plenty of talent, but Clijsters had the character.

Of course, dismissing Li as a choker, lacks nuance. This is the same woman who in the previous round has pulled off a dramatic comeback against Caroline Wozniacki, so did Li have the character in that match? Well, yeah, she did. Compared to other recent finalist losers in women’s tennis, Li looked positively clutch, just not as clutch as Clijsters.

When I talk basketball, you’ll often find me railing against the overrating of clutchness, but not in tennis. Tennis is a far more mentally taxing sport, and players fall apart midmatch pretty regularly as a result. As such their is a spectrum of clutchness for the players at any given time, and though it varies to some degree day-to-day, Clijsters is at the very top of that spectrum now after being toward the bottom among elite players for most of her career. It’s an incredible shift, and heartening for anyone who has ever let pressure get the best of them.

Photos via cuesportgroup.com and empowerednews.net.

Written by Matt Johnson

January 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm

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