Clijsters Is The Pick For Australian Open Crown
Clijsters Is The Pick For Australian Open Crown
Photo By Fred Mullane By Richard Pagliaro
The retractable roof over Rod Laver Arena hasn’t been the cause of Kim Clijsters hitting her annual Australian Open ceiling. Competing with the acrobatic body control of a tennis contortionist willing to bend her body to any acute angle in pursuit of a ball, Clijsters’ rapid retrievals that sometimes suddenly screech to speedy splits seem to shrink the court to the size of a hopscotch square.
Though she covers the court as comprehensively as any woman in the draw, Clijsters has fallen frustratingly short in her effort to win the Australian Open.
The 2005 U.S. Open champion has lost three-set matches to the eventual Australian Open champion in her last four trips to the Melbourne major.
Top-seeded Jennifer Capriati turned back Clijsters, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1, in the 2002 semis en route to winning her second straight Oz Open crown. Serena Williams fought back from a 1-5 deficit in the decisive set and staved off two match points one game later to storm back for a 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, triumph in the 2003 semis. One year later, Clijsters did not drop a set in six matches in surging to the final before the bubbly Belgian bowed to compatriot Justine Henin-Hardenne, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, marking the third time Henin-Hardenne beat her former junior rival in a major final. Last January, Clijsters halted Martina Hingis’ compelling comeback in the quarters and was up a set against Amelie Mauresmo before retiring at 2-3 in the final set. Mauresmo went on to beat Henin-Hardenne in the final.
She’s been boxed in by opponents, slowed by a memorable questionable call in the 2004 final, shaken by her nerve when serving for a semifinal win and stopped by injury in her bid to win the Melbourne major, but by the end of this Australian Open fortnight look for the fourth-seeded Clijsters to claim her second career Grand Slam championship as the bride-to-be finally shirks her status as an Australian Open bridesmaid.
Why will Clijsters prevail in a field that features top-seeded Maria Sharapova, who has not surrendered a set in her last two meetings with Clijsters, defending champ Mauresmo, who has conquered Clijsters in four consecutive matches, Jelena Jankovic, the hottest player on Tour who held a match point against Clijsters before losing today’s Sydney final, or collection of hungry, hard-hitters that includes Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic or Nicole Vaidisova?
There are actually several reasons for considering Clijsters’ championship credentials:
Her game — Clijsters’ style of play, predicated on her quick court coverage and ability to run down virtually any ball that lands between the lines, is perfectly suited for the Rebound Ace surface, which is slower and produces a higher bounce than the blue courts of Flushing Meadows
Her 2007 record — she enters the Australian Open unbeaten on the season stopping Sharapova to win the Hong Kong exhibition and saving a match point against Jankovic to score a 4-6, 7-6(1), 6-4 victory and seize the Sydney title today.
Her draw — Clijsters’ draw is softer than the remnants of a snow ball sunbathing in the Outback: she opens the tournament against 70th-ranked Russian Vasilisa Bardina, who is making her Australian Open debut, and will likely not be challenged until a potential quarterfinal clash with either the sixth-seeded Hingis or the ninth-seeded Safina. Clijsters was won six of seven meetings with Safina and has handed Hingis three straight losses to even their head-to-head series at 4-4.
Her match-up with the top seed — Though Sharapova has solved Clijsters in their last two meetings, Sharapova is not nearly as quick around the court as Clijsters and plays with a lower margin of error on her flat shots. If Clijsters’ serve, which has always been the most suspect shot of her game, hold up and she plays with patience she’s shown in reaching two Roland Garros finals she will have an edge in longer baseline exchanges against Sharapova.
Her fitness — Clijsters remains one of the best-conditioned players on the WTA Tour and though she was forced to withdraw from the 2006 U.S. Open after spraining her troublesome left wrist the fact that Clijsters missed two months of the 2006 season recovering may actually work to her advantage in that she will be fresh and focused for the Australian Open.
Her nemesis — World No. 1 Henin-Hardenne, who has conquered Clijsters in five straight Grand Slam meetings withdrew from the Australian Open due, while Serena Williams, who is 7-1 lifetime against Clijsters and always a threat in majors, missed much of the 2006 season suffering from both questionable conditioning and a lack of match play against top 20 opponents.
Her outlook — Clijsters’ public proclamation that 2007 will likely be her last season of professional tennis may well alleviate some of the self-imposed pressure she’s succumbed to in the past. Clijsters, who plans to marry fiancé Brian Lynch this year, may well be able to swing away more freely in her farewell season.
The crowd — A nation that has lacked a women’s champion since Chris O’Neil beat Betsy Nagelsen in the 1978 final has adopted Clijsters, the former fiancée of Lleyton Hewitt, as one of its own. Clijsters is a crowd favorite in Melbourne against virtually any non-Aussie opponent and a Clijsters win would be a welcome results among Aussie fans starved for success in the aftermath of Molik’s struggles with illness, Hewitt’s slide and Mark Philippoussis’ knee injury.
"Clijsters’ early form has been amazing," Hall of Famer Pam Shriver, who will serve as a tennis analyst for ESPN2’s upcoming Australian Open coverage told Tennis Week. "I know Hong Kong is an exhibition win, but beating Sharapova there in straight sets is good for Clijsters’ confidence. Clijsters is looking really good. Sharapova is probably the favorite in the minds of many people and Jankovic, after reaching the U.S. Open semifinals last year, has got to look back on that match against Henin-Hardenne and think it was hers to win. She really should have been playing Sharapova in that U.S. Open final a few months ago, so Jankovic is certainly a player to watch."
Clijsters has bumped off by the eventual champion in her last four trips to Melbourne, but look for her to break through and take the title this month.