- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2011

PARIS (AP) - Kim Clijsters smiled sheepishly Friday while recounting the unusual way she managed to hurt her right ankle and a toe recently, nearly forcing her to skip the French Open yet again.

Of all the ways for an athlete to get injured, the champion at the past two Grand Slam tournaments sent herself to the sideline while cutting a rug at her cousin’s wedding.

“I was in bare feet, because I was wearing high heels, and I couldn’t dance in my high heels,” Clijsters explained in a matter-of-fact way, two days before the French Open starts. “So then I landed on another girl’s foot, and I twisted my ankle. Then, while I’m walking off, limping, somebody stepped on the outside of my small toe, as well, and I still have a problem there.”

Then she added: “But I’m here.”

Yes, the 27-year-old Belgian is back at Roland Garros as a competitor for the first time since 2006, an absence that came about because of injuries and what turned out to be a temporary sabbatical from tennis while she got married and gave birth to a daughter.

Still, Clijsters certainly is someone to keep an eye on in a French Open women’s field that is missing the Williams sisters.

It’s also missing a true favorite.

Justine Henin returned to retirement. Nine of the top 12 seeded players _ including No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki _ haven’t won a Grand Slam title. Maria Sharapova hasn’t appeared in the semifinals at any of the past 12 major tournaments. Defending champion Francesca Schiavone is only 7-4 on clay this season.

At least Schiavone and contenders such as Sharapova, who won last week’s Italian Open, and Wozniacki, who reached Saturday’s final at Brussels, have been adjusting to the slow, slippery surface lately. Clijsters was the French Open runner-up in 2001 and 2003, but she last played on clay in April 2010.

Indeed, since losing to Henin in the 2006 French Open semifinals, Clijsters‘ clay-court resume consists of four matches, with two wins and two losses. After her wedding mishap last month, she pulled out of European clay tuneup tournaments; her last match anywhere was March 30.

Hardly ideal preparation.

Not to mention the heavily taped ankle she hopes won’t hamper her too much.

Still, no one seems ready to dismiss Clijsters‘ chances over the coming weeks.

“Well, it’s always difficult to not play for a few weeks and come back, (with) a Grand Slam being your first tournament,” said Sharapova, who has won the other three major tournaments once each but never been past the semifinals in Paris. “But, you know, she has a tremendous amount of experience behind her back.”

Or as 2010 French Open runner-up Sam Stosur put it: “People like that don’t play the tournament unless they’re feeling ready.”

Clijsters gave herself Friday off, but she’ll practice Saturday.

When she set foot on the main stadium court at Roland Garros to hit balls Thursday, she got a rush of anticipation.

“I felt like a little girl again,” Clijsters said. “It was a nice feeling to have.”

She is seeded second and will play 100th-ranked Anastasiya Yakimova of Belarus in the first round.

Largely because the type of movement it requires is different, clay never has been Clijsters‘ favorite _ or best _ surface.

All four of her Grand Slam titles came on hard courts at the U.S. Open or Australian Open.

“I just prefer, I think, the impact that your strokes have on a hard court. I know that if I hit a shot, forehand inside-out, on a hard court, eight out of 10 (times), it won’t come back; on clay, five out of 10 or eight out of 10, it will come back,” she said. “You have to have a little bit more patience. You have to just be ready to accept a lot of balls back.”

After so much time away from the French Open, Clijsters says she’s come to accept the particulars of playing on clay.

And maybe even relish it.

“I enjoy the challenge, I think, more now. I know why I never felt that comfortable is because of the movement and everything, but I feel it’s the same for everybody,” Clijsters said. “I enjoy the challenge of trying to win every rally.”


Howard Fendrich can be reached at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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