Well here it is, its pretty long but a nice one I think
From Belgium with Love
Lleyton Hewitt has to share his girl with an adoring Australian public. “Aussie Kim” is hoping that the local support will propel her to Grand Slam glory at Australian Open 2004. ( I hope so too
) By Vivienne Christie
When Kim Clijsters asked Lleyton Hewitt for an autograph during the Australian Open 2000, she had no inkling it would change her life. It was the start becoming half of the world’s most celebrated tennis couples.
She was even less aware that her autograph request (which was for younger sister Elke by the way- Kim was a Pat Rafter fan back then) would spark the love of an adoring Australian Public.
It’s a love that’s reciprocated, with Clijsters stealing a few minutes from her passionate support of the Australian team during the Davis Cup final to explain how Australia is not just her second home, but the country she most often returns to during her breaks from the international circuit.
“I’m more in Australia than I am in Belgium,” she tells Australian Tennis Magazine. “I’ve started to feel Australia is like home. The first two years that I came here and had Christmas here it was nice but I didn’t know a lot of people outside Lleyton’s friends and his family. Now its great. I know a lot of people and have made a lot of friends. I love this country.”
For the third year running, Clijsters flew to Australia immediately after the season-ending WTA Championships. For the past two years she’s bunked in with the Hewitt family but with Lleyton having purchased his own luxury home in Adelaide recently, the pair had a little more privacy this year.
Down-time for the highest achieving couple currently on tour includes golf, some water sports, time at the beach and general relaxing. On her official website, www.kimclijsters.be
, Clijsters also jokes about doing the cooking and cleaning for Lleyton at his home.
The year her year-end break included some much-anticipated celebration of Australia’s Davis Cup victory before returning to her Australian Open preparation- which the 20 year old considers to be the Grand Slam that’s not just the closest to her heart, but in many ways the closest to her home.
“It’s a really different feeling than all the other Grand Slams,” she says. “In Paris (it feels like home) a little bit because a lot of my family and friends drive there, which is a big difference. But definitely the Australian Open feels like a home Grand Slam.”
She came tantalisingly close to home Slam success in 2003, losing just 16 games en route to a tightly contested semi-final over World No.1 Serena Williams. With a fervent Melbourne Park crowd cheering her on, Clijsters took Williams to three sets and held two match points at 5-2 before the power of the eventual champion proved too strong.
In her typical positive manner, Clijsters bounced back from that disappointment to enjoy countless highs throughout 2003. She reached the semi-finals or better at 20 of the 21 tournaments she contested, snagging nine titles along the way (incredibly, by year end she had played 102 singles and 52 doubles matches). By August her consistently high results had propelled the Belgian to the top of the world rankings.
Being the first player to reach the pinnacle without claiming Grand Slam (although she did reach the finals at the French and US Opens) took none of the sheen off the achievement.
“To get to No.1 was definitely very special and I think a highlight of my career,” she says. “That was probably the best part of (2003) as well as defending my WTA Championships title at the end of the year. Winning my two Grand Slam doubles titles with Ai Sugiyama (the French Open and Wimbledon) was also very special.”
Clijsters concedes that it’s going to be a hard year to top but there are still some goals unfulfilled. The most obvious milestone missing from her impressive CV is that first Grand Slam title.
There are many people-not least Kim herself- hoping that such success will occur in Melbourne this month. And the facts, as well as the sentiment, are strictly stacked in Clijsters’ favour.
The 20-year-old is well prepared for Melbourne’s often-demanding conditions, having been practicing in Australia since arriving here immediately after winning the WTA Championships.
Clijsters’ aggressive and athletic game is well-suited to Melbourne Park’s Rebound Ace and having won Sydney in 2003, her confidence on the surface is high.
Australia is one of the few places where the ATP and WTA tours converge and Clijsters and Hewitt are taking full advantage during their Australian Open preparation. Both are representing their respective countries at the Hyundai Hopman Cup in Perth, (which may provide the first opportunity for the pair to face off competitively- me thinks someone hasn’t read the draw
) and both are entered in the Adidas International in Sydney.
There are more than a few fans, promoters and tennis writers dreaming that the pair will provide the perfect story by winning the men’s and women’s titles at Sydney and Australian Open 2004.
Clijsters dreams of such parallel success extending to world domination. “Imagine how great it would be if we were both No.1 in the world at the same time,” she told Britain’s Ace Magazine recently. “we’ve both been no.1 now, which is great. But to both have it at the same time would be even better.”
While some critics have suggested that a high-profile relationship can be distracting, both Clijsters and Hewitt are quick to point out that they feed of each other’s success.
“I love being with Kim,” Hewitt said recently. “We measure up well. We understand what we have to deal with being in the top 10. A different girl probably wouldn’t connect. Kim’s levels of commitment are as high as mine.”
“Hitting with Lleyton definitely helped get me to No.1,” Clijsters added in her interview with Ace. “Not only practising with him but also watching his matches and his fighting spirit when he’s on the court. That’s probably been my biggest motivation. That look in his eyes when he plays. I see how intense he is and how much he cares about the tennis. That’s what you need if you want to become a good player.”
With ongoing criticism that Clijsters is “too nice” to win a Grand Slam, many would argue that she could also learn from her boyfriend about accessing some “inner mongrel” during key career moments. Clijsters, however, is adamant that winning does not necessarily have to come at a cost to her natural personality.
“No, no!” she stresses. “A lot of people have been saying how I’m too nice to win tournaments and stuff like that but it’s not something that bothers me. I’d rather be known as a nice person and a good ambassador for the sport than someone that nobody likes.
In any case, experience in the public arena has shown Clijsters that regardless of her actions, many fans and media will draw conclusions without full knowledge of the facts. Shortly after the US Open final, an apparent spat between the top Belgian women was well publicised- but Clijsters speaks with genuine fondness about the pair rising to the top together.
“It’s been unbelievable. In L.A. when their was the ceremony for the number ones we were standing next to each other saying ‘look at us, look at us now’. We’re 21 and 20 years old and four or five years ago we were travelling together and playing the junior tournaments together. Now we’re standing here as the number ones,” she reflects. “It was something we both really adored. It was a special moment.”
Clijsters adds that while it is sometimes tough to compete against a compatriot, the two women have fed off each other’s success. “We make each other better because we grew up together. We were at the same tournaments together and you learn from each other. I think she’s a great player and deserves to be No.1 and win those tournaments.”
Clijsters is also quick to clear up misconceptions about her split with doubles partner Sugiyama, with whom she won seven titles in 2003. “You will be reading more lies about me in the newspapers,” she wrote on her official website at the start of December. “What they have been writing about me and Sugiyama is absolutely nonsense. We decided not to play anymore more than two months ago.”
“The fact of being no.1 in the world, playing two Grand Slam finals and winning several tournaments, apparently suffices to make some people jealous. Right now, they even try to write gossip about my best friend. On the other hard, I am glad it is not about Justine and me again.”
More criticism at the end of 2003 focussed on Clijsters’ decision to opt out of the 2004 Olympics because of the requirements to wear a uniform produced by a brand that conflicts with her endorsement of FILA. She will be representing Belgium in Fed Cup competition in 2003 but it’s support of the Australian Davis Cup Team for which she shows the most passion.
“You can see how almost the whole country is watching. Australians are really into their sport and that’s what I like because I grew up in a very sporty family and that’s sort of what I missed a little bit in Belgium. I think Australia is probably the biggest sports country in the world and I really love it.”
So can we hope that she’ll one day switch allegiances and truly become Aussie Kim?
Like the speculation about marriages plans to Lleyton- and no, the ring she’s been sporting on her wedding finger for three-and-a-half years is not an engagement ring but one which caused blisters on her racquet-wielding right hand- Clijsters diplomatically sidesteps the question.
“I think it’s hard to do that when you’re still playing and stuff but when we stop playing and stuff it’s not going to be as busy as it is now. I’d love to spend a lot of my time here because I love it,” she says.