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Steve Flink: Clijsters Closes Year in Style

11/1/2010 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

All week long at the season ending WTA Championships in Doha, Qatar, effusive followers of the women’s game were hoping for one of those matches that would wrap up the year in the best possible way, and carry the sport commandingly into 2011. It had not been an extraordinary week for the top eight players as they finished their 2010 campaigns in the heat on the hard courts. The tennis was played at reasonably high standards as Kim Clijsters, Vera Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Jankovic led the way in the Maroon Round Robin group, while Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur, Francesca Schiavone, and Elena Dementieva—who stunned the tennis world by announcing her retirement at the end of the week after finishing a year among the top ten in the world for the seventh time in her career—were the prime time players in the White Group.

The only player who failed to win a match in either round robin contingent was Jankovic, the 2008 world No. 1 who seemed out of sorts and off her game all week long, losing all three matches she played without garnering a single set, displaying a dismal and defeatist attitude every time she stepped on the court.  The seven other players all performed at least sporadically well and they were all highly professional. But not until the final round contest between Clijsters and Wozniacki did loyal fans get the kind of contest that they deserved, and then some.

The perspicacious Belgian and her admirable adversary from Denmark were inspiring all the way through their captivating encounter, using every inch of the court in their stirring baseline exchanges, testing each other comprehensively, blending aggression with steadfast defense purposefully and unrelentingly. It was among the three or four best matches for the women in all of 2010, and more compelling than any final round clash at a Grand Slam event this year with the possible exception of the Serena Williams-Justine Henin duel at the Australian Open. Clijsters and Wozniacki had only faced each other once before, with Clijsters a straight set victor in the 2009 U.S. Open final.

That was a well played contest, but it pales in comparison to their skirmish at Doha. Both competitors had much to gain by prevailing on this occasion. Wozniacki had already sealed the No. 1 world ranking on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour with a round robin win over Schiavone, becoming only the tenth woman since the inception of computer rankings in 1975 to finish a year at the top of the heap, joining Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Serena Williams, Justine Henin, and Jankovic in that elite category. But she has not yet won a major, and she was looking to vindicate her status as the top ranked player in the world by securing the fifth most prestigious crown in the women’s game. As for Clijsters—who had not competed in a tournament since the U.S. Open—she was seeking to claim the year end event for the third time in her distinguished career, and hoping to win her first season-ending crown since 2003. Moreover, Clijsters is always out to demonstrate her growing conviction as a big match player; she has captured the last two U.S. Opens, and in 2010 she was victorious in other prestigious WTA Tour events at Miami and Cincinnati. Moreover, she has not lost a final since she came out of retirement in the summer of 2009.

Clijsters got out of the blocks faster than Wozniacki, although it was not easy for her to establish an edge. Wozniacki is a tenacious competitor who plays almost every point as if her life is on the line, and Clijsters tends to her business with a similarly quiet intensity. The opening game of their final round meeting went to four deuces, with Wozniacki fending off three break points and reaching game point once before Clijsters broke by virtue of an effective drop shot that drew Wozniacki in and enabled the Belgian to take control of the point.

The battle was on. Clijsters saved two break points in the following game on her way to 2-0, holding after two deuces. But Wozniacki surged back to 2-2 at the cost of only two points, finding her range off the ground, exploiting two errant backhands from Clijsters in the fourth game. But the key game of the set was clearly the fifth. Wozniacki wanted to keep the momentum on her side of the net. At 2-2, she served an ace down the T for 40-15, and was seemingly in good shape. Clijsters had other notions. When Wozniacki failed to put away an inside out overhead taken on the bounce, Clijsters shifted quickly from defense to offense and won the point. Then the Belgian released an inside out forehand winner to reach deuce.

There were five deuces in that crucial game, and the Danish 20-year-old had five game points in all. Clijsters stood her ground ably. On her second break point, she moved ahead 3-2 as Wozniacki sent a flat forehand long down the line. All through the match, Wozniacki’s ground game was solid and dependable; her lone vulnerability was missing the occasional down the line forehand.  In any case, Clijsters connected with four out of five first serves in the next game, and moved briskly to 4-2 by holding at 15. Wozniacki answered by holding at love for 3-4, but Clijsters was driving the ball off both sides with greater depth and decidedly more pace. She held at 15 for 5-3. Now serving to stay in the set, Wozniacki obstinately tried to hold in a well played, seven deuce game. Wozniacki had five game points, saved two set points, but was broken in the end as Clijsters made a deep return down the middle that elicited a forehand pulled wide from Wozniacki. Set to Clijsters, 6-3.

The rallies remained full of sparkle and sophistication, but Clijsters very definitely held the upper hand. While Wozniacki backed off too frequently and did not take chances when she had openings to hit winners from advantageous mid-court positions, while Clijsters was always willing to take calculated risks to finish off points. Clijsters was on the verge of breaking the match open in the second set. On her way to a 4-1 lead, she swept 12 of 15 points on serve, and broke a relatively passive Wozniacki in the fourth game as the 20-year-old Dane redirected a backhand down the line but hit it into the net. And yet, despite going down 1-4, Wozniacki was not ready to surrender. She played ultra-aggressively to hold for 2-4 at 15, closing out that game with a confident winning overhead.

Wozniacki was playing with renewed vigor. Serving in the seventh game at 0-15, Clijsters double faulted, and then drove a crosscourt forehand well long for 0-40. She saved one break point but then lost her serve with another unforced error off the forehand, missing this one down the line. Wozniacki held at love for 4-4, closing out that game with an excellent wide serve in the deuce court that Clijsters could not handle, then releasing a dazzling forehand drive volley winner into a wide open space. The momentum had shifted decidedly, and Clijsters was unraveling while Wozniacki was hardly missing and asserting herself more from the back of the court. Serving at 4-4, Clijsters drifted to 15-40, but she regrouped boldly here, using a wide serve to set up a penetrating forehand down the line to force an error, then striking a beautifully crafted backhand down the line winner. She held on for 5-4, but Wozniacki was imperturbable.

Wozniacki took her game back up a notch again, holding for 6-5 with a swing volley winner off the backhand. Clijsters resolutely tried to force a tie-break, twice reaching game point for 6-6. But Wozniacki was unswerving. She got to set point when Clijsters netted a forehand approach drive volley. On set point, Wozniacki made a safe return, and Clijsters was guilty of an unprovoked error off her two-hander crosscourt. Just like that, it was one set all. Clijsters had squandered a big lead, and Wozniacki was playing her finest tennis of the match. Heading into the third set, Wozniacki looked entirely capable of taking the match.

From 30-30 in the opening game of the final set, Clijsters made consecutive unforced errors off the forehand. Wozniacki was up a break at 1-0 in the third, and everything seemed to be going her way. But Clijsters promptly broke right back for 1-1. She had reconfigured her game at precisely the right time. Both women held for 2-2, and then Clijsters made her final push to seize ultimate control of the contest. The Belgian held for 3-2 at 15, putting four out of five first serves into play. At 2-3, 15-30, Wozniacki double faulted. She managed to fight off one break point, but then at 30-40 Clijsters, ever willing to keep going for her shots, produced a crucial inside-out forehand winner to build a 4-2 third set lead. She subsequently held at love for 5-2.

Yet Wozniacki kept competing honorably. She did not miss a first serve, holding at love to close the gap to 5-3. She made Clijsters serve the match out, and the Belgian was clearly apprehensive. She narrowly missed a forehand down the line for 0-15, and then Wozniacki connected with her most majestic shot of the match to make it 0-30.  Clijsters had pulled her way off the court, but Wozniacki answered with a staggering angle of her own off the forehand, and the Belgian had no play at all. It was 0-30. Clijsters got back to 15-30, only to double fault. Wozniacki was at double break point, but she was off target with a forehand down the line, sending it long. Clijsters then released one of her trademark shots of the match—the backhand down the line—and Wozniacki could not handle her forehand on the run. It was deuce, and Clijsters was two points away from the crown.

Wozniacki stayed bold under pressure. She angled a two-hander sharply crosscourt to set up a forehand volley winner behind Clijsters. For the third time, Wozniacki was at break point in this absorbing ninth game of the final set. Clijsters went down the T with a first serve to the forehand, and Wozniacki uncharacteristically miss-hit her return wide. Clijsters advanced to match point, but double faulted. But the Belgian remained unshakable. She moved forward unhesitatingly after opening up the court with an excellent wide serve in the deuce court. Clijsters approached to the backhand, got the short lob she wanted, and put away the overhead emphatically. At match point for the second time, she wisely went to Wozniacki’s forehand again with a second serve, and the world No. 1 netted the return. Clijsters has secured her fifth title of 2010 in only eleven tournament appearances, defeating Wozniacki 6-3, 5-7, 6-3, signaling that motherhood has made her a better competitor than ever.

The semifinals were similarly contested. Clijsters pulled away from Stosur, winning 7-6 (3), 6-1. Surely unnerved at the outset after being in a car accident on her way to the tournament site, Clijsters was down 3-0 against the Australian. She got back to 3-3. Stosur builds her game almost entirely around her heavy kick serve and a potent inside-out forehand, but Clijsters gradually punctured holes in Stosur’s weaker backhand. Yet there was more danger ahead for the Belgian. At 4-5, 30-30, she double faulted, and that self inflicted wound put her down set point. Clijsters bailed herself out skillfully, directing her first serve to Stosur’s backhand before stepping in for a scorching backhand down the line winner. Clijsters held on gamely for 5-5. Both players held to set up a tie-break. Stosur led 3-2 on serve in that sequence, but Clijsters was unstoppable thereafter, collecting five points in a row. Clijsters coasted to victory from there.

In the other semifinal, Wozniacki was up 4-1 against Zvonareva, the Wimbledon and US. Open finalist. Zvonareva had ousted Wozniacki in a straight set semifinal at the Open, and so this was a time for the Dane to make amends. She led 4-1 in the first set but lost four games in a row. With Wozniacki serving at 4-4, 0-40, she threw in a kick serve, but Zvonareva took it early, driving her two-handed backhand return down the line for an outright winner. Zvonareva was confident after not dropping a set in three round robin victories, including a straight set triumph over Clijsters, avenging her 6-2, 6-1 loss in the U.S. Open final to the Belgian. Now Zvonareva was serving to go up a set on Wozniacki, and perhaps roll right into the final. Zvonareva made it to 40-15 in the tenth game, with two set points at her disposal.

On the first, the Russian swung her first serve wide to the forehand, opening up the court for a forehand winner. She missed it badly. At 40-30, the two players had a terrific 13 stroke rally, but once more Zvonareva cracked, netting a backhand. Wozniacki dug in, broke back for 5-5, and never looked back, winning nine games in a row to close out a 7-5, 6-0 triumph. In the second set, Wozniacki served two aces in the opening game and swept 24 of 28 points. It was an impressive piece of business, although Zvonareva lost her way completely toward the end and wavered badly.

And so the season is over for the women, with the notable exception of the Fed Cup Final this weekend. It was a nice boost for the game that Clijsters and Wozniacki went to work with such vitality, giving us a showcase match to conclude the year on a high note. It was a strange year in many respects. Serena Williams had set the pace across the first half of 2010, winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon. She was No. 1 in the world, and would surely have ended the season at the top with even a mediocre second half of the year. But then she suffered a mysterious foot injury in July and never played another match after her triumph on the lawns of the All England Club, concluding 2010 at No. 4. Venus Williams battled her usual problems with her knees, and did not compete again after a semifinal loss to Clijsters at the U.S. Open, finishing the season at No. 5 in the world. Serena had won the WTA Championships at the end of 2009, toppling Venus in the final. Venus had taken the title the year before. Justine Henin came out of retirement after about 20 months to reach the 2010 Australian Open final, but did not play again after an injury suffered during her round of 16 loss to Clijsters at Wimbledon.

To be sure, there was some compensating brightness shining over the landscape of the women’s game. Francesca Schiavone’s French Open triumph was lauded by those who love a more cerebral brand of attacking tennis in contrast to the masses of big hitting baseliners. Zvonareva played the finest tennis of her career. By winning six tournaments and setting high standards of consistency, Wozniacki’s rise to No. 1 in the world was earned with hard work and admirable professionalism. But she did not even reach a final at a Grand Slam event; a No. 1 ranked player in the world must do better than that.

Be that as it may, it was inspiring to watch Clijsters and Wozniacki performing at such a high level across three gripping sets on an important occasion. I am encouraged that next year the women will celebrate a bright and captivating season that will be much more coherent than the year we are leaving behind.