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Steve Flink: Clijsters Revisits US Open Summit

9/14/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

FLUSHING MEADOWS--- Four years ago, the immensely popular Belgian Kim Clijsters recorded a well deserved U.S. Open triumph, capturing her first major title in the process, making amends for losing in the finals of four Grand Slam events up until then. She had been up there among the elite for quite some time, losing narrowly to Jennifer Capriati in her first major final at Roland Garros in 2001 by scores of 1-6, 6-4, 12-10. She had been beaten three times in championship matches at the majors by the redoubtable Justine Henin, bowing against her gritty countrywoman at the 2003 French and U.S. Opens, and the 2004 Australian Open.

When Clijsters elected to retire in 2007 and start a family, she left the sport with a terrific record but not an unassailable one. I disliked seeing her as only a one time winner at the majors. She always struck me as someone much larger than that, as a player with a capacity to use speed, precision, power, and stupendous footwork to accomplish on a higher scale. At the time she left tennis more than two years ago, I felt she had not fulfilled herself as a player, and regretted that she was no longer going to compete in the upper levels of the game and keep contending for majors.

Those worries are over now. Clijsters returned this past summer in Cincinnati, and reached the quarterfinals before losing to world No.1 Dinara Safina. She played well in Toronto before losing to 2008 world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, building a 5-3 final set lead before that match slipped understandably from her grasp. My feeling was that Clijsters would hold her own with almost anyone at this U.S. Open, but I believed it was asking too much to expect her to sweep seven matches and secure a Grand Slam title in only her third tournament back in the game after so long away.

I could not be happier that I was wrong. She had a spectacular fortnight, eclipsing both Williams sisters on her way to the final, and then striking down world No. 9 Caroline Wozniacki in a straight set final. Clijsters established herself as the first woman ever to topple the Williams sisters in the same tournament twice. Not only that, but she became the first wildcard ever to win the U.S. Open, cutting down seven seeds across the fortnight, playing the game so skillfully and with such intensity and tenacity that it seemed as if she had never really stepped aside. Let’s reflect briefly on the final with Wozniacki.

This was a difficult test for Clijsters after being such an underdog in her battles with the No.3 seed Venus Williams and No.2 Serena Williams along the way. The match with Serena, of course, was a time of high drama and controversy as Williams lost the match on a point penalty at the very end after being guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct for hitting a lineswoman with an avalanche of rough words and language that cost Serena a ten thousand dollar fine, not to mention a piece of her reputation. But I will analyze that incident in more depth later in the week.

Facing Wozniacki, there can be no doubt that her mindset was not the same. This was a match that she was expected to win by most observers in the know, and surely she would have been deeply aggrieved if she had not come through. She knew that Wozniacki had been nowhere near a Grand Slam tournament final, and the 19-year-old is only in her third year of completion at the majors.

But Clijsters also recognized that youth and relative inexperience can play out in dangerous ways. Wozniacki might have moved beyond herself to a new level. She could have played the match as if she had absolutely nothing to lose, and such an attitude and philosophy would have made life difficult for the Belgian. At the beginning of the contest, Clijsters was sparkling. Her exemplary footwork and her penetrating inside-out forehand were abundantly on display. Her game face was readily apparent. Her big occasion experience was shining through. She looked ready to take utter control of the first set, and perhaps lock Wozniacki out of the match completely.

Clijsters took a 2-0 lead by playing with controlled and purposeful aggression. But then she lost a long third game on her serve. Wozniacki visibly grew brighter and more vibrant. She was relieved to be on the scoreboard, and was not willing to let it stop there. Improbably, Wozniacki secured four games in a row. She reminded everyone why she was in the final, how she had knocked out six worthy adversaries, what had made her such an alluring performer during her two weeks of exciting progress in New York. The critical game of the match was the seventh of the opening set. Clijsters was in considerable danger of going down two breaks when found herself serving at 15-40. She knew she was in a serious bind, and recognized that the loss of that game would almost surely cost her the set, and might even lead to losing the entire match.

Clijsters was extraordinarily poised and quietly intense at that pivotal moment. Serving at 2-4, 15-40, she released a beautifully struck two-hander crosscourt for a clean winner. At 30-40, she set up impeccably for an inside-out forehand, and drove it powerfully into the clear. The shot landed just inside the sideline for another winner. Clijsters had performed brilliantly in the clutch. She held on for 3-4, broke for 4-4, and moved swiftly to 40-0 on her serve in the ninth game. Inexplicably, she did not maintain her focus, and she let that service game slip from her grasp.

So Wozniacki was serving for the set at 5-4. At 15-15, she handled a solid return from Clijsters with conviction, driving a two-handed backhand into the corner and out of reach. Wozniacki was two points away from a one set lead, but Clijsters asserted herself assiduously once more. She added pace to her backhand return down the line, and lured Wozniacki into an error. At 30-30, she used a deep return to elicit a short ball, and then stepped in to drill a forehand winner. One point later, Clijsters took control again with a scorching forehand crosscourt forcing Wozniacki into an error.

It was 5-5, but Clijsters had another jam she needed to avert. In the eleventh game, she trailed 15-40, but Wozniacki tightened up a bit and made a forehand unforced error, and then Clijsters turned on the aggression to move forward and put away a bounce smash from near the net. She held on gamely for 6-5, and then broke Wozniacki at love to wrap up the set. After nailing yet another inside-out forehand for what amounted to a winner, Clijsters almost danced her way to the changeover, realizing she had put herself in an excellent position to win a second United States Open title.

But Wozniacki was still playing her customary brand of percentage tennis, keeping her shots deep, giving little away. She stayed with Clijsters until 2-2 in the second set before Clijsters broke the set open by taking three games in a row for an insurmountable 5-2 lead. Clijsters took 12 of 16 points in that span. Two games later, she served for the match, and the drama was not over. Clijsters was down 0-30, but she went right to work.  Here trademark wide serve in the advantage court--- released at 106 MPH and placed perfectly--- lifted her back to 30-30. She then cracked an inside-out forehand near the sideline that set up the same shot, this one turning into a winner. It was match point. Clijsters saw the opening for a forehand down the line, which Wozniacki could barely get back in play. Clijsters moved forward briskly and emphatically put away another overhead on the bounce. Mission accomplished. Title in hand. A job well done.

And so Clijsters is now the first mother since Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980 to win a major title. She is the first player from outside the top ten on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Rankings to capture the U.S. Open. And, of course, she is the first wildcard to claim the crown. Moreover, the 26-year-old has raised her historical stock decidedly by taking a second major. She can be virtually assured of eventually being inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She can be proud that she has made such a resounding comeback, and try to garner a few more majors as she moves into her late twenties. She can keep demonstrating that she may well be a better player than ever before. Her first serve is bigger and better, her second serve is so consistently deep and reliable that it is awfully hard to attack, and her speed is as much of an asset as it always has been.

Kim Clijsters is back. She will hopefully use this triumph as a motivation to hit other large targets. Whether she does or not--- and I am convinced she has at least one more major triumph ahead of her--- we should all celebrate her return, appreciate her newfound commitment, and hope that she will keep swinging freely and dreaming the largest of dreams. In a year when women’s tennis has come under increasing scrutiny because the leading players have been so unreliable, the reemergence of Kim Clijsters has been a substantial boost at the best possible time.

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