Posted on Sat, Mar. 22, 2003
Clijsters likely only obstacle these days for Williams sisters
The tennis player who could break up the Williams sisters' axis of power has a dimpled chin and a superstitious mind -- not to mention a pulverizing forehand.
Kim Clijsters was the only player to beat both Serena and Venus Williams in 2002.
In 2003, she'd like to do more than beat them. She'd like to move up a notch from No. 3 in the world and end the siblings' stranglehold on women's tennis.
How tough a task awaits her? Even a sick Serena, grunting and gagging on a night of nausea for the No. 1 seeds at the NASDAQ-100 Open, was able to subdue Francesca Schiavone in straight sets before heading back to bed. She was doubled over and still hit winners.
Clijsters felt fine during her 6-2, 6-2 dispatch of Yoon Jeong Cho. We assume Clijsters didn't eat the same dish that doomed her boyfriend, world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt. He was sick all Thursday night, then felt limp in his first-round loss to Francisco Clavet. Too bad the most talented tennis couple since Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf won't have a chance to repeat the dual triumph at Indian Wells last week.
At least Clijsters possesses the momentum to make something happen at Key Biscayne, especially if Serena can't fully rebound from a stomach ailment in this killer heat that has stolen our winter and kidnapped us straight to August.
Clijsters, who is -- along with Justine Henin-Hardenne -- the best thing to happen to Belgium since chocolate, is only 19. She's on the way up. She has the best practice partner in the game (Hewitt). She's strong and fast.
Clijsters is more likely to upend the Williams sisters than the fading Jennifer Capriati or creaky Lindsay Davenport, both 27 and both looking to get on one last roll.
What Clijsters lacks so far is killer instinct. That was apparent at the Australian Open in January, when she led Serena 5-1 in the third only to lose, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7. Her other agonizing Grand Slam loss was at the 2001 French Open, when she couldn't close out Capriati in a 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 marathon that contained the longest third set in Roland Garros history. She was two points from victory four times.
Her parents -- Leo, Belgium's 1988 player of the year, and Els, a former elite gymnast -- encourage her to think of tennis as a ''hobby.'' That's why she wasn't damaged by the losses.
''I don't regret anything I did in both of those matches,'' she said. "Against Jennifer, it was experience that made the difference at the end. Against Serena, she just raised her level. She didn't make any unforced errors in that whole third set. That's what those top players do. They can raise the bar when they feel it's necessary.''
Clijsters (pronounced KLEYE-sters) has to do the same thing in a Grand Slam if she is to rise above the 'challenger' label.
It has been all Williams in the past four Grand Slam finals. Serena beat Venus in each, in straight sets. Clijsters beat both last year, but when hardly anyone was looking. She beat Venus in Hamburg, then again at the WTA season-ending championships when Venus withdrew with a calf strain trailing 0-5. She then beat Serena in the final.
''Once you get that first win against them, I think you get better,'' she said. ``With a lot of girls, it's just a mental thing.''
Clijsters overcame the intimidation factor by deciding to enjoy the challenge of playing Serena and Venus.
''I try to make them hit every winner that they have to hit and try to get every ball back,'' she said.
Clijsters eats the same type of food or wears the same outfit (after it's washed, of course) if she gets hot in a tournament.
Last week, when Clijsters and Hewitt reigned together it was a little like the days when Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors were queen and king of tennis.
Except that Clijsters isn't No. 1 and isn't obsessed about it. Time will tell if she can attain one without the other.
''I don't have goals ranking-wise,'' she said. ``Rankings are for the public.''
Hewitt is about the only person she hasn't beaten on the court.
''No, I can only win at cards,'' she said. ``I lose at squash, table tennis, badminton. I want to win one. But never.
"He hates to lose. Especially to his girlfriend.''
© 2003 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.