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Choking on Serena's scraps
By [email protected]
May 25 2003
The Observer

Forget ladies who lunch, ladies who choke are setting the trend in tennis this year. The mouth- watering delicacy that is victory is becoming stuck in an awful lot of gullets.

It all started with the Australian Open in January when the defending champion, Jennifer Capriati, lost in the first round after being a set and a break up against the German Marlene Weingartner (although classifying this as a choke may not be entirely accurate given that Capriati normally scoffs small fry such as Weingartner as if they were a light side dish). A day later there was no mistaking Emilie Loit's discomfort when the Frenchwoman took the first set off Serena Williams and had a point for 4-2 in the second. The prospect of beating the world's best player was too much for Loit to stomach and she faded fast.

The Serena effect has been a major cause of this outbreak of choking and it struck again at the Australian Open when Kim Clijsters led the world number one 5-1 in the deciding set of their semi-final before gagging on the tension. Clijsters appeared to have difficulty clinging on to her racket when she served for the match for a second time in the third set and produced two double faults. 'I was close to beating her and so I am very disappointed,' said Clijsters, 'but she came up with great shots. I have to keep my chin up.' Chin up, can't choke? Possibly.

Monica Seles used to know no other way than winning tournaments. Not any more, and the chance to claim her fifty-fourth career title - she would surely have reached three figures had it not been for her terrible stabbing in 1993 - made her all jittery in the final against Justine Henin-Hardenne in Dubai in February. Seles dropped a match point in the second set and served for the title in the third set before losing. She praised Henin for staying relaxed at the crucial moments, a tacit admission that this was what she had failed to do.

The most recent choke in a big match came last Sunday with Clijsters the beneficiary on this occasion. She beat Am?lie Mauresmo 3-6, 7-6, 6-0 in the final of the Italian Open after the French player came within two points of winning in the second set. Mauresmo has previous when it comes to succumbing to nerves. At the 2001 French Open, the Paris crowd expected great things of her after she won 31 out of 34 matches going into the tournament, but she lost abjectly in the first round to Germany's Jana Kandarr. After last weekend's defeat by Clijsters in Rome, Mauresmo blamed exhaustion while just about everyone else who was there detected frailty under pressure.

Men also lose from winning positions, of course, although the politically incorrect wanting to make the case that choking is a woman thing can always quote the most remembered collapse of all, Jana Novotna's defeat in the 1993 Wimbledon final. Novotna served for a 5-1 lead in the third set before losing 7-6 1-6 6-4 to Steffi Graf. (Famously, Novotna then wept on the Duchess of Kent's shoulder at the prize-giving, prompting the Duchess to console her: 'Don't worry, Jana, you'll be back next year.')

While Clijsters admitted that she felt a twinge of sympathy for Mauresmo as the French player's game fell to pieces in Rome, that said more about the affable Belgian than it did about the women's game being less competitive than the men's. Clijsters, who will be 20 on the last day of the French Open, is widely, and rightly, admired for having managed to achieve so much in the women's game - she has risen to split the Williams sisters at the top of the world rankings - while acquiring none of the self-conscious belligerence of so many young sports stars.

It is, perhaps no coincidence that the well-rounded Clijsters seems to figure (as winner and loser) in more 'choke' matches than most other players. A player not obsessed with her profession - she said last week that she regarded tennis as a hobby, despite the riches it has earned her - is probably more vulnerable to applying herself erratically than the single-minded ones who wear the expressions of trainee accountants on court.

If Clijsters did perform more evenly it would make it easier to predict that on Saturday week she would be acknowledging the acclaim of the Roland Garros crowd after becoming the first Belgian to win a grand-slam singles title. She has a wonderfully robust game that meets all the demands of twenty-first-century tennis and with Henin, Capriati and Lindsay Davenport is one of a select corps who go into matches against the Williamses unintimidated.

But nagging doubts persist about her ability to hold it all together throughout a grand-slam final. She came desperately close to doing so at the 2001 French Open when she missed the title in a terrific match, which Capriati won 12-10 in the third. The point about that match, though, was that Capriati did not play particularly well and still won. Clijsters' only other grand-slam final was in Australia earlier this year when her game disintegrated so spectacularly.

And if Clijsters cannot stop Serena Williams in Paris as the American seeks her fifth successive grand-slam title (and sixth in all) it is hard to know who can. Henin may be able to - she has beaten Serena on clay this year - but the rigours of winning through a 128-player draw have always proved too much for the bird-like Belgian. Capriati and Davenport are struggling to produce their best form.

One of the biggest disappointments in the women's game is that neither Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova nor Jelena Dokic of Yugoslavia has maintained the progress of the past two years. Both looked likely to join the serious players 12 months ago, but with the midway point of the 2003 season approaching neither has even made it to a final. Hantuchova's weight - or rather loss of it - has been a hot topic recently with her British coach, Nigel Sears, admitting it is a problem that is being addressed. Dokic, meanwhile, seems to have been distracted by her romance with the Brazilian racing driver Enrique Bernoldi.

There is always Venus, of course, to take on her younger sister, even if it is a challenge she has appeared to face with diminishing conviction in recent months. Five defeats in a row, including in the finals of each of the past four grand slams, have taken their inevitable toll. At least the draw was kind to her on Friday, placing her in the opposite half of the draw from the champion.

All the signs are, though, that the only thing Serena may choke on over the next two weeks is her victory speech on Saturday 7 June
 
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