"CONGRATS TO ALL THE WINNERS"
Clijsters' smile hides fierce style
By Karen Crouse, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2003
KEY BISCAYNE -- In the competitive, catty world of preening beauties and racquet twirlers, of glowing smiles and bold ambition, Kim Clijsters stands apart. On the traveling pageant that is the WTA Tour, Clijsters has the "Miss Congeniality" award sewn up. The competition's not even close.
Clijsters is like the Belgian chocolates that are her country's other popular export. She has a solid shell and is sweet to the core.
The teenager is the finest female player not named Williams. She has all of the sisters' corporeality but none of their detachment. Like Serena or Venus, Clijsters has the speed and athleticism to turn a lost point into a winner. She can pull out matches with her "C" game.
She proved as much Sunday in a third-round match against Paola Suarez at the Nasdaq-100 Open. Clijsters, the No. 3 seed, dispatched the 27th-ranked Argentine 6-2, 6-2 despite committing 17 unforced errors and tallying a measly five winners, none of them on her backhand side.
"You just have to fight for every point, even when you're not playing your best tennis," Clijsters said. "You just have to keep hanging in there and trying to win those matches with bad tennis."
Clijsters was broken in her first two service games in the second set. It barely slowed her march into the Round of 16.
That's the beauty of being able to leg out points. Immediately after she was broken by Suarez to open the second set, Clijsters produced a point suitable for framing.
Suarez slapped a backhand down the line to Clijsters' forehand side. It was so beautifully placed it appeared only the wind could get to it.
Clijsters not only ran it down and got her racquet on it, she uncoiled a shot that put Suarez on the defensive. The doubles specialist proceeded to botch the return and went on to get broken at love.
After that, Clijsters didn't give Suarez much breathing room. There are people who question Clijsters' ambition because she lets a smile be her armor. To watch her play is to see the killer instinct lurking beneath all that loveliness.
Clijsters must be doing something right. She has a 23-3 match record this year, which includes wins in the finals at Indian Wells and Sydney. Two of Clijsters' losses came in title matches, against Venus Williams in Antwerp and Ai Sugiyama in Scottsdale.
She was the only woman to post victories over Venus and Serena last year. Suffice to say Clijsters didn't win by smothering them with kindness.
"Once you get that first win against them, I think you get better," Clijsters said. "With a lot of girls, it's just a mental thing."
Clijsters is one-half of tennis' other power couple. She has been dating Lleyton Hewitt, the No. 1-ranked men's player, for two years. They are Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf in training.
Hewitt, who lost in the second round here, attended Clijsters' match. He politely waved off people who approached him with requests for autographs. This was Clijsters' 15 minutes, not his.
In the seventh game of the second set, Clijsters tried to trip up Suarez with a chipped backhand. "There you go!" Hewitt shouted. When the shot was swallowed by the net, he clapped as if to say, "No worries, mate."
Now that she sits at No. 3, Clijsters knows there are no easy matches.
"I know a lot of the girls that I compete against, they have nothing to lose," she said.
"They want to prove a point and they're just more free. They can hit whatever they want and they can go for whatever shots they like. That's definitely how I was feeling when I was younger."
That's Clijsters. She's 19 going on 60. She has enough maturity not to sweat the small stuff. You know, like tennis.
"If you see the war and you see how many people die, I mean, I'm not going to worry about losing a tennis match or if I'm ranked 3, 4, 5, 50," she said. "That's not going to change anything for me.
"Of course I try to do my best and I give my best in whatever I do, you know, for my tennis. But I also like to have fun and I'm not going to sit around and cry all day if I lose a tennis match."
Clijsters goes through life with a song in her heart. More players ought to try it. It's a great way to drown out all the tour's silly white noise.