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By LIZ ROBBINS
Published: August 29, 2005
Somewhere on the road to the United States Open, Kim Clijsters became a Jersey Girl.
Clijsters, a 22-year-old from Belgium, sampled a true slice of Americana: summer down the shore in Belmar, N.J., where her boyfriend's family has a home.
While her former fiancé, the Australian tennis player Lleyton Hewitt, was marrying the Australian soap star Bec Cartwright at the Sydney Opera House in July, Clijsters was hanging out in New Jersey at the beach and at the Great Adventure amusement park with her boyfriend, Brian Lynch. The two met last spring in Belgium, where he played for the professional basketball team in her hometown, Bree.
Buoyed by the salt air, she then made herself at home on the hardcourts in North America.
Clijsters, one year removed from a career-threatening wrist injury that sidelined her for eight months, has won three of the four summer tournaments on her favorite surface and six titles in this comeback season.
That blend of restored confidence and happiness makes her a favorite to win the Open. Though she hates to talk about that.
"That doesn't mean that I'm going to win it," she said last week after winning in Toronto. "I'm going to give my best shot."
When pressed about her chances, Clijsters smiled demurely. "I feel that I'm playing well; I feel that my body is healthy," she said. "That changes my attitude as well."
Now the only question is whether she is too happy to remove the tag Best Player Never to Win a Major.
With slight irritation, Clijsters responded to an often-heard question. "There's no monkey on my back," she said. "A lot of people just focus on the things that I don't have. I know I haven't won a Grand Slam. But, you know, I've won a lot of other things, and I've been working very hard."
Clijsters had surgery in June 2004 to repair a torn tendon and remove a cyst in her left wrist. When she tried to return in October, she reinjured the wrist, then sat out until February.
"The big advantage was that she had time off," said her coach, Marc Dehous. "So she is physically fresh, mentally fresh. That's the perfect formula to have a good season."
He is hoping the formula ends in a flourish. "I think she proved that she is one of the best players," said Dehous, who has coached Clijsters since 2002. "I just hope she can win one Slam in her career, and all of the big fuss will be over."
Still without the full range of motion in her left wrist, Clijsters shortened her backhand to compensate, but she has not lost power. The strength she exhibits on the court is a reflection of her off-court growth. Her family, friends and coach helped her cope with ending the engagement to Hewitt last fall.
"For a while, after Lleyton, I wasn't interested in guys," Clijsters said. "I wasn't looking, I was just trying to settle at home, and I was looking after my dogs and being just with friends."
Her mother, Els, met Lynch while attending a basketball game. While Clijsters was back on Tour, Els showed him pictures of her daughter's English bulldog.
Lynch also has an English bulldog. In May, when Clijsters was resting at home after she tweaked her knee, she agreed to go out with Lynch - on a play date for their dogs. Lynch's 9-month-old, Neo, went berserk over Clijsters's 2-year-old, Beauty, who turned up her nose.
Clijsters and Lynch started dating in June.
Lynch, a 6-foot-7 small forward who played at Villanova from 1996 to 2000, bounced around in the European leagues before landing on a team that went on to win the Belgian championship last season.
He did not know much about Clijsters's career.
"The name sounded familiar," Lynch said in a telephone interview last week from Belmar. "I am almost glad I didn't know her as anyone but Kim Clijsters, who comes to my basketball games.
"She doesn't act like a superstar athlete, where they think they're special. She's a very down-to-earth, kind person."
Clijsters beamed when talking about the relationship. "It clicked from the day we met," she said. "It's easy. Everything was so comfortable."
Clijsters said she did not want to discuss details of her relationship with Hewitt, but she said it would not be awkward to run into him and his wife, who is pregnant, at the Open "I know Lleyton very well, and he knows me very well, probably a lot better than anybody does for now, at the moment," she said. "I know that he's happy. I have spoken to him. I am obviously going to speak to him. They're both happy, and that's all that I wanted for them."
In 2003, Clijsters won six titles, vaulting to No. 1, before losing to Justine Henin-Hardenne in the United States Open final. It was not until her injury and her breakup that her world stopped spinning. She learned to appreciate the down time.
"There were moments in 2003, you're on automatic pilot and you keep going," she said. "The first two months I was injured, I didn't miss tennis one minute."
Clijsters bought a cottage a few miles from her house and renovated it (painting with her right hand) with friends. She spent the holidays with her family, not in Australia with Hewitt, for the first time in five years. "I just realized how happy I was," she said. "This is what I missed for so long."
When Clijsters returned to the Tour at Indian Wells, she had new vigor and a new world ranking, No. 133. She won that tournament and the next one in Miami.
Clijsters enters the Open seeded No. 4. She could meet the No. 1-seeded Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals.
"I think she's in confidence right now, that's for sure," Henin-Hardenne said after Clijsters beat her in Toronto. "But I think Kim hasn't changed a lot since she's back on the Tour. She's playing pretty much the same way, very consistent, very powerful, moving very well. She's fighting all the time."
Clijsters said she was not too nice to fight on the court, as is her reputation. "I'm not going to become a meaner person," she said. "I'm being myself. I don't have to hate people to win matches."
Clijsters's competitiveness may come from her mother, a former gymnastics champion, and her father, Leo, a soccer coach who was the 1988 player of the year in Belgium. Her positive outlook, she said, comes from her mother's having survived liver cancer and a transplant nearly seven years ago.
She knows that tennis is not everything. She announced last week that she planned to play only another three years because her body cannot "handle this lifestyle for that much longer."
For now, she is enjoying her new way of life. Lynch, who returns to Belgium this week for another season, has been keeping the mood light this summer, taking Clijsters to his favorite dance club in Belmar, D'Jais, and to a gig his band, the Garbage Men, played.
"She's put so many things into perspective," Lynch said. "She's really focused. It seems to me the year off might have been the best thing that's ever happened to her."