Tennis Week Interview: KIM CLIJSTERS
By Brad Falkner
Kim Clijsters is high fiving and ass-slapping WTA staff, tournament officials and fellow players. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she brings a smile to an overworked and under appreciated WTA staff member. It’s the media day at the Staples Center during the season-ending Bank of America WTA Tour Championships, and Clijsters is being paraded around to the various media clusters.
She pleasantly works the room like a politician, exceeding the required number of media requests 10 fold. Without warning Clijsters escapes the clutches of the media and scampers across the room to greet her doubles partner, Ai Sugiyama. After a moment, Clijsters is easily cajoled by a WTA staff member to return to placate the media for another 45 minutes.
This is precisely why Clijsters is so unique among the top stars of the WTA Tour. She is a pleasant, polite, funny, silly, respectful, kind, considerate, effervescent young lady, whose gleeful smile is omnipresent. She has the ability to get down to business, as she did during her 52-minute domination of Amelie Mauresmo during the final, and the spontaneity to suddenly break from her final match practice to rush into the stands for a quick hug and kiss with George Lazenby — known both as 007 and Pam Shriver’s husband. (Comments Shriver as they embrace, "You’re the only one that he comes out to watch.")
During the Championships, Tennis Week’s Brad Falkner caught up with the person who — with the possible exception of Younes El Aynaoui — is the most sincere, accessible and friendly person in all of professional tennis.
TW: It must be nice having a boyfriend who can double as a hitting partner. When and how often do you two workout together?
KC: At the end of the year, we train together a lot. We play little games, especially during the off season. When we are on holidays, we go out on the court and play doubles or play against people — our family and friends — left-handed. It’s fun. I don’t have to worry about having a boyfriend who doesn’t know how to play tennis.
TW: Let’s say you two were to play a game up to 11 or 21 without serving. Could you beat him?
TW: Are you sure — not even once? I could swear that I saw you winning more than your share of points against him at Stanford two years ago.
KC: Yeah, no. I have up to seven, like a tie-break without serves. I don’t think he tries really hard because I get pissed after a while, and it’s frustrating. Even when we work out or play squash or play badminton, he is so quick, and it’s so hard for me to win. I hate losing — and especially against him. I think every girl, when you play against a guy, you want to try hard and get better.
TW: Will you go to Australia to support your man in the Davis Cup final versus Spain?
KC: I will fly there straight after the Championships.
TW: Does that have anything to do with you not playing the Fed Cup?
KC: No, no. When I heard about the schedule and everything, I just wanted to put out a statement toward the ITF, showing them that we are not happy with the way the scheduling for the Fed Cup is going. They need to change the formula. They are making it so much longer, the season. I could not imagine going back to Moscow now this year or whatever, even if it would have been here in America. So there’s still a week where you have to get ready and train. I’m happy in a way as well because it’s been a very long year and a tough year. Knowing that I can have some more time off helps.
TW: Let’s say that Belgium was to be the host site?
KC: It’s a different situation, I think. I don’t know what I would have done then. I definitely would have been talking to the ITF, pushing hard to have the formula changed for next year. It’s a little bit tougher when you’re playing at home. It’s definitely a lot more fun as well because all of the matches that we’ve played there we had the best crowds. I remember playing in Moscow a few years ago, and there was hardly anyone there. That also makes it tough to get ready for it. Knowing that there will be a good atmosphere always makes it a little easier at the end of the year to have some more fun.
TW: Agassi was 22 years old when he won his first Grand Slam tournament and 0-3 in his first Slam finals. Lendl was 0-4 in his first Slam finals and did not win his first until he was 24. How are you dealing with this frustrating situation of reaching the finals of a Slam without winning one?
KC: You just have to take the positive out of it. Instead of thinking, "Oh I’ve lost another one," you need to think, "I’ve been to another final." [You] work harder and try to get yourself to be the best player that you can be and try to make sure that you are fit enough and strong enough to give yourself more opportunities to get there. [You] try to create more chances to get yourself back in that same situation again and maybe try something different then as well. Definitely something that I’ve learned from this year is that also playing doubles in a few of the Grand Slams has made me feel tired at the end. I have had a great doubles year as well, and I’m sure that if I would not have played as many doubles, then I would not have been in the same situation as I am now. I feel very comfortable when I come to the net in singles. I think that’s what the doubles matches have definitely taught me.
TW: On that note, Martina Navratilova agreed that doubles has helped you, but she still feels that you don’t use enough of the court in singles and that you have the ability. But you stay back too much during a match.
KC: It’s not my natural game. This year, I feel comfortable when I have a chance to go to the net because of the doubles. It’s not like you are going to see me start to serve and volley. Last year, I didn’t even know where to stand when I had to come to the net. I didn’t know where to cover the court or anything.
TW: With all of the success that you had this year, the focus in the media still seems to be on what you have not achieved in the Slams and your relationship with Justine (Henin-Hardenne). Does that discourage you at all?
KC: Of course. There are some things that will always — even if you try not to focus on it — hurt a little bit. That’s not the way that I was brought up at all. Some situations can be tough, but you learn from them. The last two years have been an incredible learning experience. It has made me a lot more mature, and it has made me realize which people mean well for me and which people don’t. You learn from mistakes you make.
TW: Part of your job is having to answer the same questions week-in and week-out. Is there one question you feel is getting a little old?
KC: (Long pause) Last year when I was doing well, the main question was — and even Serena and I, we joked about it in the locker room — "How does it feel to be the one closing the gap between the Williams sisters?" That was the question at every press conference. Serena and I were in the locker room after a press conference. She said to me, "OK, so how many times did they ask you this time?" You just laugh at it. We were both getting sick of it at the end.
TW: I noticed that you and Jennifer Capriati often practice together and spend time hanging out at tournaments. How far back does that friendship go, and do you think you would be friends even if you were not colleagues?
KC: It’s actually since we played each other at the French Open, that year in the finals (2001). You create a bond because you were in that situation together, and even though I lost, I was in a way very happy for her as well. I think that she’s a great girl. We have a lot of fun on and off the court. I always have great practice sessions when I hit with her. It’s good to know that there is someone that I can rely on that is also a player. After we played each other in the final at Stanford (this year), in the locker room we were sitting together talking about what we are going to do next and where we are going, what we can do in San Diego, where we can have dinner, things like that. I think that’s what it should be about because you travel with [each other] each week, and it would be a nightmare if you didn’t have anyone. I get along well with a lot of girls. I get along really well with Anastasia (Myskina); we go to the movies together. That’s something that you create from juniors. I really enjoy this life at the moment. I made a lot of friends on the tour. Even when we’re not at tournaments, Jennifer and I, we still message each other.
TW: You seem to have your priorities straight.
KC: There are a lot of things that make you realize how lucky we are. It can be frustrating losing a tennis match, but it does not even compare to your health or having major illness. Now with the bush fires here as well, those people are so sad and in a lot of pain. Every moment that you can have fun and be with your family and friends, that is what I think is most important, not who won or lost a tennis match.
TW: Last year, there was some talk of you moving to Australia. What is the current status with that?
KC: It’s tough. Belgium is still home for me; it would be tough for me to leave it. I love Australia and I can’t wait to go there. Lleyton bought a house, and we are living there now and that’s fun. As long as I’m playing, I don’t really want to be thinking about it or worrying about it. You never know what can happen. Who knows? In a few years I might be living there or have a change in residency. At the moment it’s not something I want to worry about.
TW: Would you describe Lleyton as a typical Aussie?
KC: Yeah, yeah for sure. What most people don’t know about him is that he is really laid back and is a very funny guy. A lot of people only see him on the court as well. It’s hard to know what a person is really like when they are on the court. Lleyton is really, really opposite of what you see on the court. He is a typical Aussie for sure.
Brad Falkner is a regular contributor to the Tennis Week web site. His last piece for the magazine was “Backhand Complements,” a Q&A with Justine Henin-Hardenne in the July 22, 2003 issue.