April 04, 2005
Clijsters in good repair for assault on big time
From Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent, in Key Biscayne, Florida
THE mobile phone trilled in Kim Clijsters’s bag ten minutes after she had endorsed an extraordinary return to top-flight tennis, becoming the first player since Steffi Graf nine years ago to cross the United States to win back-to-back titles in the biggest tournaments outside grand-slam events. Old coaches may move on, but they never forget a favoured pupil.
Graf was Clijsters’s heroine when she was growing up in Belgium, striking the ball with an innocence that belied a focused determination to be a star herself one day. Carl Maes was her instructor then, helping her to become the world No 1 before, three years ago, the pair parted company. Maes eventually went to work for the LTA to help to oversee Britian’s junior development programme, while Clijsters teamed up with Marc Dehous, reached more grand-slam finals and then went through the agony of not knowing if her career would be brought to a premature end by a wrist injury.
Maes is likely to part with the LTA to return permanently to Belgium, where he has already been granted leave to take over as the Fed Cup captain. The chance to become the head of his country’s coaching set-up is proving an irresistible option. There could be more Clijsters to nurture, a group of girls as entranced by the game as the 21-year-old, who defeated Maria Sharapova 6-3, 7-5 to become the Nasdaq-100 Open champion and follow Graf in doing so without dropping a set.
There were tears in Clijsters’s eyes at the end and a lump in Maes’s throat. “There have been some wonderful comebacks in women’s tennis, Serena [Williams] returning here last year and winning it having been out for so long was a great achievement, but I can’t think of anything that tops what Kim has done,” Maes said. “To beat six of the top ten players in the space of three weeks, it is amazing. I believe the best player in the world won today. She will get back there, I hav
e no doubt.”
When Clijsters returned in Antwerp in February, she did not have a clue what to expect, a quarter-final was perfectly acceptable. What has happened since has been true testament to her skill and courage. “What impressed me most about Kim was how she was the one in charge of the rallies, with her physical ability she was able to hang in there for an extra shot, drawing the errors from Maria,” Maes said. “She is the best defender in the women’ s game, by which I mean she works better than anyone to stay in a rally, more than just her famous splits shot.”
Clijsters did, indeed, wear down the famed Russian resistance, extending her head-to-head domination over the Wimbledon champion to 3-0. On one point, which gave the Belgian one of her four service breaks in the second set, Clijsters retrieved a smash from Sharapova, then scrambled the ball back into play with a backhand slice that prompted the Russian to overhit into the tramlines.
Maes thinks that it is important now for Clijsters to get her programme right, not to overplay, but to pick and choose her tournaments. To that end, she will have a scan to test that her wrist is standing up to the rigours of her schedule so far. The next peak should be the French Open in May and a real charge on an elusive first grand-slam title. “The advantage Kim had when she was recuperating from wrist surgery was how she could maintain her physical condition, so she has no problems there,” Maes said. “I still think her serve can get better, but everything else is right back in place.”