Clijsters Fails to Read the Script; 110m Chinese Share Pain as Li Na's Bid for Asia's First Slam Is Upset by Belgian

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Byline: From Malcolm Folley IN mELbOURNE

KIm CLIJSTERS broke the hearts of 110million Chinese viewers who had turned on their televisions in the hope of seeing the coronation of their nation's first tennis Grand Slam champion.

They will have watched spellbound as Li Na, already a national heroine, won a set from Clijsters but lost the Australian Open here last night. Li Na's principal disappointment appeared to be the distraction caused by a legion of noisy fans determined to assist her through the gates of tennis history. No Asian has won a major, so when she jumped into a lead she discovered she had innumerable voices shouting advice.

'During the match, many Chinese wanted that I win this match and they tried to coach me how to play,' she said. 'They can talk, but not during the point.' The scenes across China can be only imagined, but there is a sense that Li Na is leading the country towards taking a greater foothold in the sport. She said she thought she would have had a decent following in her home city, Wuhan. 'But it's only a small town, just seven million people,' she said, laughing.

The Chinese were denied an early celebration of their New Year only because Clijsters has proved motherhood need not be an obstacle to success on court. The Belgian was initially unsettled by the speed of Li Na's approach to the biggest match of her life.

Yet the 27-year-old closed the evening in possession of her third Grand Slam title since she returned to the game after giving birth to her daughter, Jada, who will be three next month.

Once engaged to Australia's leading player Lleyton Hewitt, Clijsters was affectionately known in these parts as 'Aussie Kim' and her popularity here certainly outlasted their romance. And on court, after thanking the contribution of her American husband, Bryan Lynch, a retired basketball player, she told an appreciative crowd on Rod Laver Arena after her 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 triumph: 'I now feel you guys can finally call me Aussie Kim because I won the title. …