- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

NEW YORK — More questions. More attention. More pressure. More perks.

As Kim Clijsters is discovering, life changes pretty quickly when you’re the newly crowned queen of women’s tennis.

Then again, some things remain constant — at least when entering the grounds of the National Tennis Center.

“They still had to check my bags and stuff,” Clijsters said with a smile. “It’s nice to see the draw, to see your name on the top of the list there. It’s definitely something, a sheet of paper that I will take home.”

The top seed at this year’s U.S. Open, Clijsters hopes to take home more than a mere draw sheet. In a tournament missing the Williams sisters, the 20-year-old Belgian is seeking her first major title — and with it, validation for her place atop the sport.

The 12th woman to reach the pinnacle of the WTA Tour’s computer rankings, Clijsters is the first world No.1 not to have won a Grand Slam.

“Kim would probably rather win a Grand Slam than be No.1,” No. 4 seed Lindsay Davenport told reporters earlier this month. “People equate who wins Grand Slams with who is the best player.

“But she has got a lot of game, and she is young. So I think she will win Grand Slams and she will get better.”

Given the state of the Open draw, the next week and a half could be Clijsters’ best chance yet to capture a major.

Defending champion Serena Williams is out, recuperating from midsummer knee surgery. Big sister Venus, a two-time Open champ, withdrew with a sore stomach. So did former world No.1 Monica Seles, who is battling a injured right foot.

For her part, Davenport is playing — but nursing a chronically sore foot that forced her to retire from the final of a tournament in New Haven, Conn., last week. Likewise, No.6 seed Jennifer Capriati and No.5 seed Amelie Mauresmo are still rounding into form following maladies of their own.

Add it up and half of the WTA top 10 either is absent or ailing, making Clijsters the odds-on Open favorite. Not that she wants to hear it.

“Yeah, the questions get asked a lot,” said Clijsters, who faces Laura Granville in today’s second round. “A lot of people think because I’m No.1 in the world, the No.1 seed here, that I’ll get [to the final] like with nothing. I still feel like I have to do my job out there, work as hard as possible and play my best tennis.”

Clijsters’ best is plenty good. In fact, only in Anna Kournikova’s Maxim magazine cover shoot has one tennis-playing woman looked so enticing on paper this year.

Clijsters came into the Open with six tournament titles and a 67-9 match record this season, both tops on the tour. She won the WTA’s year-end championship last November, beating Serena and Venus along the way.

Since January, Clijsters has advanced to at least the semifinals of all three Grand Slams and 14 tournaments overall — a remarkable achievement and the major reason she surpassed Serena for the tour’s top spot in early August.

Because the WTA’s ranking system weighs a player’s best 17 results over the previous 52 weeks, it rewards steady, consistent play. And in that regard, Clijsters has outdistanced her peers.

While Serena has captured five of the last six majors, she’s only played in 12 tournaments over the last 12 months. Clijsters, on the other hand, has played in 16 this year — hardly unusual, given that she played in 22 tournaments last season despite missing time with a shoulder injury.

“Kim deserves to be No.1 because she’s been very consistent this year,” said Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne, the No.2 seed. “She won many tournaments. She won so many matches. Probably, she didn’t play her best tennis in the Grand Slams.”

Probably not. In the 2001 French Open final, Clijsters endured a heartbreaking loss to Capriati, falling 12-10 in the third set. At this year’s Australian Open, Clijsters held a 5-1 third set semifinal lead over Serena — but blew two match points en route to a loss.

Clijsters next fell short at Roland Garros, succumbing to countrywoman Henin-Hardenne in a lopsided championship match. In the Wimbledon semifinals, Clijsters couldn’t put away a visibly pained Venus, who rallied from a one-set deficit to earn a stomach-clutching win.

In four appearances at the Open, Clijsters hasn’t made it past the quarterfinal round.

“A lot of people have been talking about not winning a Grand Slam and being No.1, but that doesn’t really worry me,” Clijsters recently told USA Today. “I’m only 20 years old. I hope I have a few more years left in my career. And I’ll have some more chances.”

Clijsters long has been pegged for greatness. Her father, Leo, was a star midfielder for a Belgian national squad that reached the semifinals of the 1986 World Cup; her mother, Els, was a gymnastics champion.

Clijsters began playing tennis at age 6. At 11, she became the youngest Belgian junior champion, prompting her youth coach to bet a case of beer that his pupil would one day be ranked in the top 10.

Four years later, Clijsters won the Belgian national title. In 1999, she came within a victory of reaching the semifinals of her first pro tournament. Later that summer, Clijsters advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon, falling to tennis legend Steffi Graf.

“I remember watching her at the U.S. Open when she was 16 or 17,” Davenport told reporters earlier this month. “And I said, ‘God, that girl is going to be good.’”

Though Clijsters is dating No.6 seed Lleyton Hewitt, a former Open champ and world No.1, she has none of the diminutive Aussie’s trademark snarl. To the contrary, Clijsters is considered one of the nicest players in the WTA.

When tour officials presented her with a celebratory cake upon her assumption of the No.1 ranking in a tournament in Carson, Calif., Clijsters carried slices to fans who were waiting outside for her autograph. Never mind the 95 degree heat.

Former player and tennis analyst Patrick McEnroe recently speculated Clijsters wasn’t nasty enough to win a major title.

“I am who I am,” Clijsters said, bristling at the charge. “I’m not going to change that because he thinks I’m not mean enough. I don’t want to be a mean person.”

That said, Clijsters isn’t exactly Stuart Smalley. Case in point: Her budding rivalry with Henin-Hardenne turned snippy following Henin-Hardenne’s victory over Clijsters in the final of a San Diego tournament this summer.

Following a match that saw Henin-Hardenne take a five-minute timeout to treat blisters on her foot, Clijsters accused Henin-Hardenne of gamesmanship, noting that “maybe she’s faking it a bit.” Henin-Hardenne responded by later calling Clijsters’ allegations “stupid.”

Though the two have since downplayed the incident, Clijsters recently vowed to seek “revenge” if she meets Henin-Hardenne in the Open final — a distinct possibility, given the depleted draw.

“I don’t think there’s any tension personally,” Clijsters said. “There’s definitely rivalry.”

Even if Clijsters gets the better of her countrywoman in a prospective final, she knows that questions about the legitimacy of her ranking will persist. Such is the nature of a Williams-free tournament.

“In the last few Grand Slams, they’ve definitely been dominant,” Clijsters said. “For any winner this year, there’s always going to be a point where they’re going to point that out.”

Still, the WTA’s newest No.1 will take what she can get. And if the Open draw sheet is to be believed, the tournament trophy is hers for the taking.

Which, come to think of it, would be quite a change. And quite a surprise for the tennis center’s bag-checkers.

“Kim is probably the favorite,” Henin-Hardenne said. “She’s No.1 in the world right now. She played so well in the last few weeks. On the paper, she is [the favorite]. On the court, we will see.”


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