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Steve Flink: Unprepared Clijsters Suffers Stunning Loss

5/26/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

She had won two straight Grand Slam events and 15 consecutive matches at the majors. She had come to Roland Garros for the first time in five years in search of an elusive prize. She was hoping to peak once again at one of the world’s most prestigious events, expecting to get better match by match, wanting to find the inspiration to play her best brand at the capitol of clay court tennis in Paris. But today Kim Clijsters let herself down badly with one of her most disappointing performances in a long while. She self destructed almost across the board and lost inexplicably to 20-year-old Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands in the second round, a left-hander ranked No. 114 in the world.

Clijsters seemed to have the match well within her grasp. She marched to a 3-0 lead in the opening set with two service breaks in hand, and with that cushion she closed out that set without much stress. Rus looked outclassed, overburdened, and overwhelmed. After 69 minutes, the Dutch player seemed certain to bow out against a great player on a big occasion as she drifted to within one point of defeat. Clijsters owned a 31-0 career Grand Slam record against players ranked outside the top 100 in the world. She was right where she wanted to be, up a set and ahead 5-2 in the second set. Rus was serving to stay in the match, and she was match point down.

Surprisingly, with victory so near, Clijsters wavered. She carelessly missed a routine crosscourt backhand return, even though she was not really trying to be that aggressive with the shot. Rus held on, but Clijsters remained in a commanding position. At 5-3, the Belgian was serving for the match, but a cluster of unprovoked mistakes put her down 0-40. She got back to 30-40 but then completely miss-hit a forehand out of court. Rus was living dangerously but still surviving, and yet she was in trouble again in the tenth game of that second set. Serving at 4-5, she was match point down for the second time. The two players got into a slugfest, with Clijsters going crosscourt off her backhand to the Rus forehand. But the Belgian drove a backhand out on the tenth stroke of the rally, and a second match point opportunity had been squandered.

Rus held on for 5-5, and then captured the next two games at the cost of only two points as Clijsters drowned herself in a sea of unforced errors. At 5-5, 15-40, Clijsters revealed her growing insecurity, serving a double fault down the T as she went for much too big a second serve. Rus served that set out easily, and yet Clijsters had an immediate opening at the start of the third set. The Belgian took the opening game of the final set on serve and should have broken for 2-0, but at 30-40 she netted a backhand down the line that seemed well within her range. Rus held on for 1-1 and then broke Clijsters for 2-1 as the No. 2 seed double faulted at break point down again. Rus surged to 3-1. Clijsters desperately needed to hold in the fifth game, but she did not.

At 30-30, the Belgian sent a backhand drop shot into the net to fall behind break point. Once more in a big situation, serving at 30-40, Clijsters double faulted a game away. Rus thus took a commanding 4-1 lead, and she did not waver. The 20-year-old saved two break points on her way to 5-1 and closed out the match in style with a crosscourt forehand winner, prevailing 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. From 2-5 down in the second set, Rus had not only saved two match points but had captured eleven of the last twelve games as Clijsters committed an astounding 65 unforced errors in the contest, 43 more than her adversary.

This clearly was the worst upset ever suffered by Clijsters. To be sure, there were reasons why she was vulnerable. Going back to March, she had been plagued by shoulder and wrist injuries. Compounding her problems, she had not competed in a tournament since Miami because she injured her ankle badly at her cousin’s wedding. And so Clijsters had no preparation at all for Roland Garros. She had hoped to be able to play in Rome but was not ready. Clijsters had not played the French Open since 2006—when she reached the semifinals—and across the last five years she had barely played on clay at all. And yet, the fact remains that Clijsters has twice advanced to the final of the French Open in her career. In 2001, she was somewhat unlucky to lose the championship match to Jennifer Capriati. Four times Clijsters was within two points of the title before the Floridian willed her way to a 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 triumph.

Two years later, in 2003, Clijsters made it back to the final before losing to Justine Henin, one of the greatest clay court players of all time. The view here is that Clijsters may not be at her best on clay but she is fully capable under the right circumstances of winning the French Open. Yet this time around her complete lack of preparation caught up with her. Had she played five to ten clay court matches en route to Roland Garros, it surely would have made her a lot more match tight and much more confident. Nonetheless, she had this match firmly under control against an inexperienced opponent. To be sure, Rus stepped up the pace of her game considerably from the middle of the second set on, getting excellent pace on her forehand and taking the initiative away from Clijsters. Clijsters needed to find a way to get to Rus’s weaker backhand side, but that did not happen often enough.

The bottom line is that Clijsters essentially beat herself. She wasted two match points, double faulted at break point down three times in critical games, and simply did not exploit her experience on a day when her mindset was entirely too negative and her shot selection was unusually suspect. Clijsters is sometimes too free-wheeling for her own good, refusing at these times to play to the score. She is a magnificent tennis player but oddly can be a less than top of the line match player. Her defeat against Rus was totally avoidable. She can only blame herself for what happened.

So where does Clijsters to from here? I have no doubt she will bounce back and play her kind of tennis again at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Clijsters—who turns 28 on June 8—will surely give her ankle some extra time to heal between now and the outset of Wimbledon. She will clear her mind and not dwell on a loss she could never have anticipated. She will resume her winning ways, especially over the summer on hard courts, the surface where she has enjoyed her most consistent success. Clijsters could well secure a third U.S. Open crown in a row this coming September. But the four time Grand Slam tournament champion is out of the running in Paris, and the women’s event at Roland Garros in 2011 will not be quite as much fun without Kim Clijsters gracing the courts.

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