Clijsters fears no one
By Clive White
When the Williams sisters bludgeoned their way to power in women's tennis seven years ago no one tried harder than the Belgian 'sisters' - Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters - to keep pace with them. This, with some help from the occasionally apathetic Americans, they succeeded in doing, but it came at a price. The Williamses may no longer be the dominant force they once were, but they have left an indelible mark, not least upon their rivals.
Henin drove her small frame so hard in an attempt to find the extra power necessary she contracted a virus that more than two years later may still be in her system while Clijsters' body simply fell apart under the strain: back, knee, wrist, ankle, you name it and Clijsters has suffered with it these past few years. So much so that last August, at the ripe old age of 23, her body cried out 'enough', well, almost enough because, momentarily free of injury and perhaps pressure, she then promptly went and won, quite brilliantly, her first grand slam at the US Open.
Test for the rest: Kim Clijsters has vowed to retire next year
Nevertheless, Clijsters will keep the promise she made then and retire at the end of next year, or at least at the Diamond Games in her home country two months later, and, one suspects, her countrywoman Henin, the new French Open champion, won't be far behind her. For that, many people will blame the fierce schedule of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, but not Clijsters. She blames the Williamses, not per se, of course, because she loves the challenge of competition too much. After all, this is a girl who would take on the boys at football and beat them - her dad is Leo Clijsters, the famous Belgian player - but she recognises that had the Williamses not raised the bar so high she would have enjoyed a much longer career.
"I don't think it has much to do with the schedule," she told The Sunday Telegraph in Paris recently, "it's just the level we're playing at, physically it's so much more demanding. When Venus and Serena [Williams] came on the tour, girls like myself who were not as tall and as strong as them had to work so much harder. Justine did all the power training so she could hit the ball harder and I had to be able to move better, defend better.
"You don't see too many high balls nowadays, that's because every point is played aggressively. Doing all those things are good for your game but it takes away a little bit from the length of your career. I'm sure I would have had a longer one otherwise. I want to play tennis like I know I can play tennis, not be restricted by injuries."
She probably needs another season on the grass, where the game takes its toll on the lower back and knees, like a hole in the head, but Clijsters loves the surface and everything connected with it ever since she first came to Wimbledon as a 14-year-old and reached the junior finals, losing to Katarina Srebotnik. She is genuinely delighted to return to Eastbourne this week to defend the title she won last year at the Hastings Direct International Championships.
Her record on grass is almost as good as that on her favourite surface - hard court - but Wimbledon is the only slam at which she has failed to reach the final, other than the junior one. She's usually had the misfortune there to run into someone who excels on it, like a Lindsay Davenport or Venus Williams.
Not that she has reason to fear anyone in the game. It is a little known fact that the world's No 2 (she would have gone back to No 1 had she progressed one round further at the French Open) has a superior head-to-head record against every other player in the world's top 10, even against her compatriot Henin, to whom she invariably loses in the big ones, as in Paris recently.
Inevitably, that has led to a charge of 'no bottle', the automatic condemnation of any serial failure in tennis, but after four 'failures' in slam finals she certainly didn't look short of courage at Flushing Meadows last year. "I feel there is a time for everything," she said. "A lot of media, especially in Belgium, always said, 'She won't win because she gets too nervous or has a mental weakness'. I was more frustrated that I never gave my opponent my best, I never felt they really had to beat me."
Part of the reason for her under-achievement could be that she just doesn't possess that ruthless streak like most great champions. For her, playing tennis has never been about winning slams or being No 1, but, to paraphrase Grantland Rice - who, by the way, was American not English - "how she played the game". Some English, believe it or not, like Fred Perry for instance, actually are a little more heartless. "I was always a believer in stamping on my opponent if I got him down, at Wimbledon or anywhere else," Perry once said. "I never wanted to give him the chance to get up."
Clijsters is more likely to run around the net and give her opponent a helping hand, but when Rice's "One Great Scorer" comes to mark against her name, one fancies she will score very highly, thank you.
• Hastings Direct International Championships, Devonshire Park, Eastbourne, June 17-24. Box office: 01323 412000.