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Steve Flink: Clijsters defends with ease

9/11/2010 11:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS---   When Kim Clijsters played the U.S. Open a year ago, she had come out of retirement after becoming a mother. It was only her third tournament back after being gone from the game since May of 2007. She toppled Venus Williams, took a controversial semifinal match from Serena Williams, and captured the title over Caroline Wozniacki. She had not played the U.S. Open since 2005, when she stopped Mary Pierce to win her first major title. Her 2009 run was heartwarming and impressive, and her zest for the game was strikingly evident after the long absence. There was a freshness and renewed vigor in Clijsters then, and she had everything going for her as she reestablished herself as a top of the line player who could be a threat at all of the majors.

She had played some excellent tennis since then, reaching the quarterfinals or better in six of nine tournaments leading up to the Open this season, winning Brisbane in a stupendous battle with Justine Henin, taking Miami with an emphatic victory over Venus Williams, setting high standards almost across the board. But she had endured some rough stretches as well. She was beaten by Nadia Petrova 6-0, 6-1 in the third round of the Australian Open. She missed the French Open with a left foot injury. She lost to Vera Zvonareva in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and had been beaten again by the Russian in Montreal. So Clijsters had not been as consistent as she would liked to have been, and no one was certain how she would perform this time in New York when she had the burden of defending her title. The last woman to defend the U.S. Open title was Venus Williams, the victor in 2000-2001.

But Clijsters handled her situation remarkably well.  She did not lose a set until the quarterfinals, upending Samantha Stosur in three hard sets. Then she stopped Venus Williams in the match of the tournament, winning  4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4. And in the championship match tonight, she cast aside Zvonareva 6-2, 6-1 with consummate ease and professional aplomb. It was the shortest recorded women’s final round match since official time records have been kept in 1980, lasting 59 minutes, providing very little drama. Clijsters was simply much too good. From 2-2 in the opening set, she distanced herself entirely from an apprehensive Zvonareva, who was appearing in a second straight Grand Slam tournament final.

Not since Chris Evert defeated Evonne Goolagong 6-3, 6-0 in the 1976 U.S. Open final had a losing finalist garnered only three games. Zvonareva never got untracked, seemed devoid of a real game plan, gave the impression that she did not really believe she was going to win this tennis match. But the way Clijsters was carrying herself under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, it was understandable that Zvonareva would be so pessimistic. Clijsters was locked at 2-2 in the opening set with the 26-year-old Russian, but thereafter she utterly seized control of the contest. The sprightly Belgian—moving with incredible alacrity in the evening air, measuring her shots impeccably, taking calculated risks, displaying stellar ball control— secured the last four games of the opening set by winning 16 of 20 points. She then took the first three games of the second set to make it seven consecutive games in her victory column. In that span, she conceded only two points.

Clijsters seems to bring out her best almost automatically. She has won the tournament on her last three attempts in 2005, 2009 and 2010. In 2003, she made it to the final before losing to Justine Henin. She loves playing on hard courts, and seems to thrive in Ashe Stadium no matter what the conditions, no matter whom she is facing. Remarkably, Clijsters has turned her career around at the majors and is now far more comfortable and confident in the title round matches. She lost her first Grand Slam tournament final against Jennifer Capriati in an epic encounter at the 2001 French Open final, bowing by the narrowest of margins, losing that hard fought and well played match 1-6, 6-4, 12-10. Then she was beaten by Justine Henin in the French Open and U.S. Open finals of 2003, and she lost to Henin again in the 2004 Australian Open final. So she had tasted her share of painful defeats before getting the chance to drink the champagne.

Since losing those first four major finals she contested, Clijsters has captured three in a row, all here at the U.S. Open. It was a shame that her appointment with Zvonareva would not have lasted longer and given the fans something more to shout about, but the fact remains that Clijsters never allowed Zvonareva to play the kind of tennis that the Russian hoped she could. Clijsters connected with 77% of her first serves, converted four of the five break points she had, made only 15 unforced errors, and produced no fewer than 17 winners—eleven more than her opponent. It was clearly not a memorable final because it was so one-sided, but it must be added that Clijsters gave a first rate demonstration of her talent and exemplary footwork, her consistency and professionalism, her pride and perspicacity.

The pattern of straight set U.S. Open women’s finals continues. There have now been 15 consecutive straight set finals in New York since Steffi Graf and Monica Seles had their magnificent three set championship  match in 1995, with the German prevailing. That string of straight set matches is highly unfortunate. But don’t blame Kim Clijsters, who simply went out on court and peaked for the occasion. She handles big occasions the right way, looking at them as big opportunities, going into these contests believing in herself and her chances, conducting herself like the authentic champion she is. It may not have been a great final—far from it—but it was a great showcase for the enduring talent of this appealing woman from Belgium.

After the final, she spoke of the lingering bad taste from her loss to Zvonareva at Wimbledon. Said Clijsters, “To me, that was one of the most disappointing losses that I’ve dealt with in my career. In a way I was excited to play her in the final here just to try to get that revenge, but I also learned a lot of things and not just by myself. My coach by watching me lose to her [at Wimbledon and Montreal] we picked up a few little things that kind of helped me out there today as well, which was kind of mixing up my game a little more. She’s the type of player who is consistent and likes the pace and likes to try to take over the pace from her opponents. I think today I was able to mix it up well and just stay calm during the rally. I just tried to put enough pressure and variety in there, to throw up some higher balls here and there.”

It was a job well done by a player who is as commendable as anyone in the business of women’s tennis. Her three U.S. Open titles puts her among the elite. The goal now for Clijsters is to spread her triumphs elsewhere, to find a way to win one of the three other Grand Slam events, to flourish perhaps on the grass of Wimbledon or the clay of Roland Garros. I believe that will happen. In the meantime, one Kim Clijsters has a whole lot to be proud of as she reflects upon a Hall of Fame career.

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