Clijsters will get chance to prove worthy of #1
Clijsters will get chance to prove worthy of No. 1
By Greg Garber
It was only 57 weeks -- the blaze of a comet across the sky in the context of world history -- but Serena Williams' reign over women's tennis seemed far less fleeting than that.
Kim Clijsters is only the 12th woman to hold the No. 1 ranking.
She became the WTA Tour's No. 1-ranked player on July 8, 2002, and won five Grand Slam singles titles in six tries. It was Serena's time, and no one -- not sister Venus before she pulled out of the U.S. Open, or Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne -- seemed equipped to surpass her. And then two weeks ago, Clijsters improbably knocked Serena out of the top spot.
The 20-year-old defeated Lindsay Davenport in the final of the JPMorgan Chase Open in Carson, Calif., and became only the 12th woman to hold that lofty position.
"No one will ever take that away from me, no matter what will happen to me for the rest of my career now," said Clijsters after receiving a white and pink floral No. 1 arrangement almost as tall as she was. "It's something I'll always have on my -- how do you say? -- on my résumé."
There is, however, one glaring omission on Clijsters' otherwise sparkling résumé.
She is the only women's player to arrive at the No. 1 spot without a Grand Slam singles title. With the Williams sisters on the sidelines, that could change at the upcoming fortnight at the National Tennis Center that is the U.S. Open. Or could it?
"Can Clijsters win?" asked tennis analyst Mary Carillo. "Yeah, she can win. She's just got to hit through her nerves when it really counts. That used to be said of Henin-Hardenne -- it was Clijsters who was thought to be the frisky, feisty battler -- Henin was the Belgian dripping with talent, but lacking the mental and emotional fortitude on weekends. Not any longer."
While Venus Williams was playing through a number of injuries at Wimbledon -- the worst among them a nagging abdominal strain -- Serena was silently suffering, too. Her left knee ached, but she took anti-inflammatories and never mentioned the pain. She skipped tournaments in Stanford, Carlsbad and Carson, generating significant criticism. And then, on Aug. 1, she underwent surgery to repair a partial tear in the mid-portion of the quadriceps tendon.
"Serena has suffered from quadriceps tendonitis of her left knee for many years, which has been controlled with medication and physical therapy treatments," explained Dr. Rodney Gabriel, who performed the operation. "She recently developed pain that, although improved with treatment, increased whenever she resumed tennis activities."
Gabriel's recommendation was surgery, so Williams will be out for six to eight weeks and miss the opportunity to defend her U.S. Open title.
Friday afternoon, Venus pulled out, as well.
They were all No. 1
No. 1 Reached
Graf 377 8/17/87
Navratilova 331 7/10/78
Evert 262 11/3/75
Hingis 209 3/31/97
Seles 178 3/11/91
S. Williams 57 7/8/02
Davenport 37 10/12/98
Austin 22 4/7/80
Capriati 17 10/15/01
Sanchez-Vicario 12 2/6/95
V. Williams 11 2/25/02
Clijsters 2 8/11/03
"I kept thinking I would be able to compete,'' she said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it just wasn't meant to be. So, with regret, I have to pull out of this tournament and continue my recovery. I'm looking forward to playing again in the fall.''
She hasn't played since losing to Serena in the Wimbledon final. She withdrew from the Fed Cup quarterfinals in mid-July and the Acura Classic in Carlsbad at the end of the month. She declined wild-card invitations to play two weeks ago in Toronto and last week in New Haven, Conn.
At Wimbledon, her long-standing stomach injury surfaced in a rousing semifinal match against Clijsters. Although Venus won -- encouraged by Serena and other family members along the way -- she was damaged goods. The abdominal pull led to a series of lesser injuries when Venus tried to compensate for her loss of power and she was fortunate to win the first set 6-4 before falling 4-6, 2-6 in the second and third.
It was the sixth all-Williams Grand Slam final in the last eight. The only thing we know for sure is that it won't be seven of nine.
While there have been seven different men's Grand Slam champions in the past seven majors, only two of those seven managed to elude Serena. For the record, Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne worked their way into this year's French Open final, with Henin-Hardenne winning her first Slam title. In the 2002 Australian Open -- which Serena skipped with a sore ankle -- Jennifer Capriati defeated Martina Hingis (remember her?) in the final.
With Hingis retired with a debilitating foot injury, Capriati struggling to find her late-career form and Davenport slowed by a foot injury that will require surgery later this year and could hasten her retirement, the Belgians are the best bet for a Williams-free final. Clijsters, despite her recent history with Henin-Hardenne, seems on the verge of a breakthrough.
It would be difficult to underplay Clijsters' rise to No. 1. Since the ranking system was introduced 28 years ago, only 11 other women have held the top spot and the fact that their first names are instantly recognizable underlines the exclusivity of the club: Chris, Martina (Navratilova), Tracy, Steffi, Monica, Arantxa, Martina (Hingis), Lindsay, Jennifer, Venus and Serena. And now, Kim.
As Serena's drop to No. 2 suggests, the No. 1 ranking is a reward for consistency, solid quantity over quality. Despite her lack of Grand Slam singles titles, she reached the semifinals in her first 14 events of the year. The streak ended last week when unseeded Lina Krasnoroutskaya beat a tired and unprepared Clijsters in the third round of the AT&T Cup in Toronto. The win in Carson was Clijsters' sixth of the season. For comparison, consider that Venus has played in only six events this year, while Serena has appeared in seven.
Over the past 12 months, Clijsters has won more tournaments (nine) than any other player, including last year's season-ending WTA Tour championships, when she dispatched both Williams sisters and Henin-Hardenne.
The only thing that has really slowed down Clijsters and her big forehand is her diminutive fellow Belgian Henin-Hardenne. After beating her in the Antwerp final in February, Clijsters has lost three of four matches -- all finals -- to Henin-Hardenne: the German Open, the French Open and, earlier this month, the Acura Classic in San Diego.
Truth be told, there is an edge developing between these two, which could translate into some captivating theater in Flushing. While Clijsters is open and terminally jolly -- happy to be wherever she is at the moment -- Henin-Hardenne comes with a massive chip on her narrow shoulders. She is hyper-competitive, which has left opponents -- even the genial Clijsters -- complaining of her means toward the ends of winning.
Remember her timeout with Serena serving in their French Open semifinal? Henin-Hardenne raised her hand as Williams dumped a serve into the net, but failed to intercede when the umpire did not award Williams another serve -- a lack of sportsmanship that prompted Williams to say, "To start lying and fabricating, it's not fair."
When Clijsters won the first set in their Acura Classic final, Henin-Hardenne took an injury timeout to attend to some blisters. Cynics, Clijsters among them, thought she was trying to slow Clijsters' momentum.
"It's not the first time that's happened, so I'm getting kind of used to it," Clijsters said in her post-match interview. "She has probably done that in every match I've played against her. It's a matter of knowing if she's doing it for an injury or another reason."
"She's disappointed she lost," Henin-Hardenne responded. "That's the only reason she's saying this."
Henin-Hardenne, who is 5-foot-5 and a good 30-40 pounds lighter than the other elite women's players, followed with a standard, belittling explanation.
"I think all these players don't like it that I'm not so strong and tall and am not the same looking players as them," she said. "They don't like to see me running all over the court and having power, too. Mentally, it's hard for them to compete against me."
Certainly, Henin-Hardenne was too much in the French Open final, trashing Clijsters 6-0, 6-4. In fact, Clijsters' closest call in a Grand Slam final came in January when she led Serena Williams 5-1 in the third set. Clijsters held two match points at 5-2, only to melt down and ultimately lose the last six games.
"Clijsters put herself in good position to win all three majors this year, and in all three she underperformed when she needed most to break through," Carillo said. "That match in Australia versus Williams was hers. Against Serena at Wimbledon and in the French final, she never bared her teeth, did she?
"So the big question for the new world's number one is, can she stop beating herself?"
A fair question. Will Clijsters' success this year -- and the faster hard-court surface at the National Tennis Center -- allow her to push past Henin-Hardenne on the ultimate stage of a prime-time final on Sept. 6?
"I don't know how to feel," Clijsters said after beating Davenport to ensure the No. 1 ranking. "I am a bit confused. It is great having my first No. 1 ranking. It is a feeling I can't describe. On the court I had butterflies and goose bumps.
"This is incredible."
Imagine what a Grand Slam title might feel like.