Tennis: Clijsters content to be third in line
Eleanor Preston finds the world No 3 happy to take advantage when the Williams sisters are elsewhere
When your sport is dom inated by two all- conquering, Grand Slam winning powerhouses, it can't be much fun being third. Just ask Kim Clijsters. The Belgian, who takes on Lindsay Davenport in the Pacific Life Open today, is currently world No 3 and has been trying to swim in the wake of the Williams sisters since the start of the year, with varying degrees of success.
The Williams aren't even in Indian Wells this week but they are certainly in southern California in spirit. Barely has a day gone by without Clijsters having to field questions about life behind the Williams and whether she has any hope of breaking their stranglehold on women's tennis.
Earlier this week Clijsters put the whole thing into perspective. She did it with a grin but her tone of voice betrayed the faintest hint of suppressed irritation. 'In your mind how far away is the No 1 ranking?' she was asked. 'Two spots,' she answered. 'And how far is that gap?' the journalist continued gamely. 'Huge,' she said.
Win or lose today against Davenport, that gap will be a little less huge thanks to the points she has earned this week, but there is still a chasm between her and Venus in No 2 position. Serena is so secure in the No 1 place it would take something seismic to unseat her.
Clijsters knows that her only chance of catching either Williams sister is if they failed to defend the ranking points they earned last year. Serena won the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, with Venus runner-up in all three.
The problem for Clijsters is that, save for events like this where they choose not to play, catching them will be an uphill struggle even if she wins a Grand Slam title herself. Clijsters is the only current player to have beaten both Williams sisters, having dispatched one after the other on her way to winning the WTA Championships at the end of last year. Prior to that, Martina Hingis was the last person to manage it, at the 2000 Australian Open.
The parallels with Hingis are worrying. After years of trying, and failing, to keep up with the Williams, she now appears to have given up playing tennis rather than keep fighting an unwinnable battle. Before injuring her foot and opting out of tennis, Hingis kept her ranking high by winning routine WTA Tour events like this. She picked up 35 of those titles, (aside from her five, pre-Williams Grand Slam trophies) and, for the most part, she could be relied upon to clean up when the Williams were elsewhere.
Beating Davenport today will be a significant scalp for Clijsters, and should provide yet another indication that in a parallel, Williams-free universe she would probably be the best player of her generation, just as Hingis once was.
Sensibly -- and she is a resolutely sensible girl -- Clijsters has been worrying about herself this week and not sparing a thought for absent friends or enemies. She seems determined to avoid Hingis' fate and let frustration get the better of her.
'You know, I don't really care how far I am from No 1. That is not a goal in my tennis career,' she said. 'I know for myself that I give everything I have for every match I play, for every practice, for anything I do. If you work hard you can get the best out of yourself. If it doesn't get you to No 1 then who cares? I did the best that I could do in my career so far. You know, to be No 3 is even out of my expectations. When I was younger I remember watching Jennifer playing the French Open [Clijsters went on to play Capriati in the French Open final in 2001] and that's huge. I was thinking 'I hope one day I will be able to play in the Grand Slams'. Even when I was in the juniors I never worried about rankings. They don't really matter. The most important thing is to be healthy because that makes you capable of playing. I try to be disciplined with everything that involves tennis, then we'll see how high I can go. That's what I've been doing. I'll keep doing that and see where it ends.'
This week that discipline has been present both on and off the court. On the court, particularly in the early rounds, she has often looked exhausted yet determination has pulled her through. She has now made the final of three tournaments on the trot (she was runner-up in Antwerp and Scottsdale before coming to Indian Wells) and says that feeling tired from playing a lot of matches is the price of that success.
Off the court, she has been revealing a rather eccentric approach to nutrition by eating the exact same meal every day, with the obsessiveness typical of superstitious athletes the world over.
'I am superstitious; I like to keep everything the same. I like to eat the same things, go to bed at the same time, and sit on the same couch. I'm not going to say all the things I do because you'll think I'm crazy,' she said, laughing.
Her meal of choice this week has been pasta, tomato sauce and broccoli. If the Williams were here, she might have needed spinach. They are both due to return to action next week, at the Nasdaq-100 Open in Miami, yet another event which Serena won last year. Both Clijsters and Davenport will be anxious to take advantage of their absence while they can.