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Steve Flink: Fed Cup Reflections

2/8/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

As if we didn’t know it already, Kim Clijsters reaffirmed for all of us once more why she is worthy of an admiration reserved only for the most honorable tennis players. Less than a week after capturing her first Australian Open crown and her fourth major overall, Clijsters lived up to an inconvenient commitment. She showed up in Antwerp to represent Belgium against the United States in the opening round of Fed Cup, secured two singles victories, and led her nation past the Americans 4-1. Clijsters was surely in need of some rest after reaching the final in Sydney and then moving on to her triumph in Melbourne. She could have been forgiven for opting out of Fed Cup, but Clijsters was not willing to take the easy way out and give herself what would have been a much deserved break.

The 27-year-old knew that her country needed her to participate if they wanted to be secure about their chances of beating the U.S., especially with Justine Henin having announced her retirement so unexpectedly in the aftermath of an Australian Open loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova. So Clijsters went to her office on the court, cast aside the listlessness that could have been there, and performed like the thorough professional she is. After her teammate Yanina Wickmayer had toppled Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-1, 7-6 (6) in the opening match of the competition, Clijsters took on Melanie Oudin. This should have been the best possible time for a player like Oudin to face a player who has won the last two Grand Slam championships, and the 2010 season-ending WTA Championships at Doha in between.

Clijsters presumably might have been ripe for a bad match, but that was not the case at all. She picked apart the 19-year-old American methodically with the pace, precision and depth of her ground strokes. Moreover, Clijsters was no beleaguered figure on the court; she was focused from the outset, and her mental acuity was never in question. Poor Oudin ever quite knew what hit her during the opening set. Clijsters was dictating points so freely and easily and was keeping her opponent so relentlessly at bay that the American never had a chance to get untracked. Oudin was rushed into one mistake after another as Clijsters took command.

Across the entire first set, Clijsters won 25 of 32 points. By my count, she made only three unforced errors. She played well, smothering Oudin with the soundness of her execution. But Oudin was alarmingly ineffective. Her defense was barely mediocre, her first serve was not a weapon, and her second serve was a sitting duck for Clijsters to attack. As the second set progressed, Oudin did find a way at last to look for opportunities to unleash her inside-out forehand and gain control of some rallies. After losing the first two games, Oudin got on the scoreboard and held for 1-2. Clijsters had a 40-15 lead in the following game but a tenacious Oudin broke back for 2-2 and the American held confidently for 3-2 by raising the level of her aggression.

Clijsters recognized that Oudin was finding her bearings, and the Belgian predictably reasserted herself after losing three games in a row.  She held at love for 3-3 and broke Oudin in the seventh game with a well concealed forehand swing volley winner directed behind the American. Clijsters swiftly went to 5-3 before Oudin held on one last time. Serving for the match at 5-4, Clijsters held easily, and closed the account with an ace down the T. Clijsters had triumphed over Oudin 6-0, 6-4 with firm conviction and unwavering concentration. As for Oudin, the severity of her defeat was inescapable. I believed after the 2009 U.S. Open when she got to the quarterfinals that her future would be filled with possibilities. Now I have real doubts about her capacity to bulk up her game and break into the upper echelons. She is in a serious bind, and in danger of drifting into obscurity.

In any case, with Belgium ahead 2-0 in the best of five match series, Clijsters returned on Sunday to confront Mattek-Sands, and this contest proved to be the highlight of the weekend. Mattek-Sands may be ranked No. 48 in the world, but she has the mentality of a higher ranked player. She was imposing her all court game from the beginning on Clijsters, who was robbed of her rhythm and thrown off guard. Mattek-Sands was daring her adversary at every interval, approaching the net with little hesitation, displaying impressive touch on the volley, and reading the direction of Clijsters’ passing shots with uncanny savvy and regularity.

The first set of this match was intriguing from beginning to end. Down a break early, Mattek-Sands soon gained the upper hand with her crafty attacking play. The American surged to 4-2 over an unsettled Clijsters. Keeping the pressure on the Belgian, Mattek-Sands held again for 5-3, and served for the set in the tenth game at 5-4. Mattek-Sands was up 30-0 in that game but lost four points in a row after being within two points of sealing the set three times. A determined but still apprehensive Clijsters broke back for 5-5 before both players held to set up a tie-break.

In that sequence, Clijsters seemed as if she was going to establish her superiority when it counted. She was up 5-3 and serving, with a chance to reach triple set point. Clijsters angled a two-hander acutely crosscourt, pulling Mattek-Sands well off the court. Mattek-Sands—stranded outside the alley—somehow got that ball back deep enough to give Clijsters a chance to miss. The Belgian apprehensively sent a forehand wide. Mattek-Sands made it to 5-5, and two games later the set went to a tie-break. Clijsters would reach set point no less than three times—at 6-5, 8-7, and 10-9. Mattek-Sands saved the first with a swing volley winner, saved the second with a deep crosscourt backhand forcing Clijsters into a mistake, and wiped away the third with a surprisingly deep and aggressive return that caught the Belgian off guard.

Mattek-Sands would not surrender. She came through on her third set point as Clijsters lost control of a backhand. Set to the American, 12-10 in the tie-break. The world No. 2 found herself down a set against an inspired opponent who was coming forward at every opportunity. But Mattek-Sands had apparently taken a lot out of herself by employing her all court tactics. Clijsters swiftly secured a 2-0 lead in the second set. Mattek-Sands managed to hold twice but it was still 3-2 for Clijsters. Clijsters was now keeping the ball deeper, serving with more accuracy, and making it considerably more difficult for Mattek-Sands to get to the net. Clijsters collected three games in a row to take the second set at 6-2.

Clijsters quickly established a 2-0 lead in the third set before Mattek Sands fought off a break point and held in the third game. But that was only delaying the inevitable. Clijsters held at 15 for 3-1 with a service winner down the T, and then broke again at love for 4-1 by releasing a scintillating forehand topspin lob winner down the line into an empty space. Soon thereafter, Clijsters completed a 6-7 (10), 6-2, 6-1 victory, clinching victory for Belgium over the U.S. Wickmayer followed with a lopsided 6-2, 6-0 dismissal of Oudin, and then Liezel Huber and Vania King gave the U.S. their only point with a straight set doubles win over Kirsten Flipkens and Sophie Mestach.

Clijsters, of course, had largely carried Belgium to victory all by herself. That she would be willing to be out there competing for Belgium so soon after her Australian Open win is a testament to her character and professionalism. I will never understand why the Fed Cup is scheduled the week after a major. That is a deep injustice to the leading players, who can’t be at the peak of their powers when they are thrown into a situation that makes no sense. The best players need at least two weeks to recover on every level—physically, mentally and emotionally—after the extreme rigor of majors. Be that as it may, Kim Clijsters simply got on with the commitment she had made, and played remarkably well under the circumstances. This was the first time in ten years that the American women had lost an opening round Fed Cup contest, and it was only the third time ever that the U.S. has not survived the first round.

They have Clijsters to thank for that.

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