By Nick Mulvenney
The girl, who Australians had taken to their hearts when she was romantically involved with local hero Lleyton Hewitt, had returned a woman and a mother and she basked, teary-eyed, in the warm applause from the center court crowd.
Her triumph had looked unlikely when Li, Asia's first finalist in any of the sport's four majors, overcame her customary poor start to dominate most of the first two sets and genuinely rattle the tournament favorite.
Where the younger Clijsters might have crumbled, however, she now merely made subtle adjustments to her game to knock the powerful Li off her stride and in the deciding set it was the Chinese whose mental frailities betrayed her.
The 27-year-old Clijsters rattled through the third set in just over half an hour before claiming victory when Li slapped a forehand into the net for her 40th unforced error of the two hour five minute contest.
"It was such an intense match," Clijsters added, explaining her tears. "I don't think I had that in one of the grand slams where I've won. To win it in this way means it a lot.
"I think it's that moment that overwhelms you, where your mind has been so focused, I'm fighting every shot, running a lot of balls down, and it's finished. That's what makes it just nice, and I guess this big relief."
Despite the Sydney defeat, Clijsters had still entered the tournament as favorite in the absence of injured 2010 champion Serena Williams, after she beat former world number one Dinara Safina 6-0 6-0 in the first round.
Her form after that been patchy and she was again tentative in the first set against Li, who was serving well and pounding away with her fierce groundstrokes from the back of the court.
Roared on by the loud choruses of "jia you" from her compatriots among the 15,000 crowd on Rod Laver Arena, the 28-year-old broke straight back and won five of the next six games before clinching the set with a huge crosscourt forehand winner.
The second set opened with five consecutive service breaks and it was Clijsters, who lost her first four grand slam finals, who broke the cycle to hold for 3-3 and gain the psychological upper hand.
Clijsters, her pea-green dress patched with sweat, tightened up her serve and starting ballooning the ball over the net, a tactic which drew a string of errors from Li.
Three games later an aggressive Clijsters leveled the contest at one set all and from then on she held the upper hand as Li labored to keep up.
"I tried to mix it up a little bit, put some slices in, also hit a few higher shots that kind of just made her make some unforced errors," she said. "I saw her get a little bit aggravated, and just tried to hang in there."
Hundreds of millions of her compatriots were watching the match on television back home in China but Li started to find the attentions of the few who were in the stadium an irritant.
"Can you tell the Chinese, don't teach me how to play tennis?" she asked umpire Alison Lang.
As with when Li told fans at the 2008 Beijing Olympics to "shut up," however, it was an outward sign of an inner meltdown and thereafter her resistance to Clijsters was perfunctory.
"I'm proud of myself," Li, her country's first tournament winner and first top 10 player, said. "She had more experience than me because she played many finals, so hopefully next time if I play final, I'll do better.
"Just one more step. Maybe next time."
The 28-year-old's sense of humor has made her extremely popular at Melbourne Park throughout the tournament and she did not disappoint after her defeat, with another affectionate dig at her husband and coach Jiang Shan.
"The man in the yellow shirt is my husband," she said. "It doesn't matter if you are fat or skinny or ugly. I always love you."
(Editing by John Mehaffey)