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Clijsters continues ascendancy toward a Slam at the Open

By Matthew Cronin

© Mark Lyons
FROM THE BANK OF THE WEST CLASSIC AT STANFORD – There's so many things to like about Kim Clijsters game right now that it's almost impossible to believe that she won't win a Grand Slam during the next year and a half – much less in a month's time in rough-and-tumble New York.

She showed all those elements in winning her second $685,000 Bank of the West Classic Sunday with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Jennifer Capriati. Her first serve has improved tremendously and she can whack it down the tee at 110-mph or slice it to the sidelines in the 90s. Her forehand is a club when she can keep it under control, she can probably beat anyone on tour in a foot race save for Serena Williams and her two-handed backhand is an utter thing of beauty. She plays offense; she plays defense and she's much more sure of herself now.

"I get the feeling of how it would be to play myself when I play her," said Capriati of Clijsters' speed and defensive capabilities. "I got a little more tired at the end than she did."

Clijsters pinned Capriati to the sidelines in the third set with her hard crosscourt backhand. Because the Belgian was accurate with it, Jennifer couldn't get her inside out forehand unleashed and without that shot, she's mincemeat.

"You have to hit the lines, and with my backhand I hit deep and with angles to open up the court. So, when I go to her forehand, she has to go for a wider shot, a tougher shot," Clijsters said. "We had a lot of backhand crosscourt rallies and then you see who was going to down the line. I feel very comfortable going down the line, crosscourt, mixing it up. I can dictate with it. It's the shot I'm most comfortable with."

Capriati, who won her last title at the '02 Australian Open, added, "She hits that angled backhand pretty well but I got a little tired in the third set. It was a good tactic on her part to open up the angles. But I still had her on the run many times and if I would have just finished the points instead of letting her slide."

Capriati did a terrific job of mixing her game up in the first two sets, coming in, tossing in drop shots and changing the pace. But it was clear on a hot and smoggy day at Stanford that the 20-year-old was in better shape than the 27-year-old Capriati, who's now dealing with a shoulder injury that could take her out of San Diego this week.

"You train so hard physically at the end of the year and it really pays off in these matches," said Clijsters, who added that the court was so hot that her feet were burning. "It's a struggle to keep working physically and I think back at all the work I did on the tread mill and running the sand dunes, that's very satisfying then to win these kind of matches, not only mentally, but physically."

© Mark Lyons
Of course, the big question for the No. 2-ranked Clijsters is not whether she'll win the California Triple – Stanford, San Diego and LA – but whether she'll win the US Open. She's a tremendous hard court player – a five-tool player on the surface – and believes she can play with anyone. Clijsters has only lost seven matches this year: two to Serena, two to Venus Williams, two to Justine Henin-Hardenne and one to Ai Sugiyama in the final of Scottsdale.

"I think I've shown I can play with anybody, but I haven't been consistent enough thorough the whole match," she said. "But the player in front of you thinks the same thing, so it's important to be mentally stronger at the end."

This year, Clijsters let a 5-1 lead slip away in the third set against top-ranked Serena in the semis of the Aussie Open, was crushed by Henin-Hardenne in the Roland Garros final and fell to an injured to Venus in three sets in the semifinals of Wimbledon. But, give her credit, she goes deep every single week and doesn't seem very affected by losses. That's a sign of someone who will show up soon in a Slam.

"I feel ready for a breakthrough," said the second-ranked Clijsters, who's about 200 points behind Serena. "When you are young you don't know what it like to be in that position all the time, but now I've had the experience and I know what it's like to be in the second week of a Grand Slam and have the big matches. To have that experience is a big difference. I feel more comfortable in big matches."
Even though she has never reached the semis of the US Open, Clijsters feels like hard courts are her best surface and she may have her best chance there.

"I feel very comfortable playing on hard courts and have always done well in all the tournaments leading up to the US Open. It's just a matter of planning well and making sure you are fit enough to keep it up for two weeks there," said Clijsters, who is scheduled to play a tournament in San Diego this week, Los Angeles the week after and Toronto the week after that. "On hardcourts, my movement can make a big difference. I feel like I can move 100 percent on them."

Many folks (including this reporter) have criticized Clijsters for being too nice and not wanting it bad enough at the Slams, but the Belgian said she'll be raring to when the tour arrives in Flushing Meadows in a month's time.

"I do want another chance. You always do and want to have it in your hands and go for it, but I'm only 20 and still have a few more years left to go for the Grand Slams."
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