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Is She Just a Paper Tiger?
By Lisa Dillman, Times Staff Writer
August 25 2003
The Miami Herald

Belgian Nice?

Kim Clijsters begged to differ Sunday. She gritted her teeth and sort of growled.

No one was convinced because she was joking. Clijsters arrived in New York as the top-seeded player in a Grand Slam event for the first time, with virtually no swagger and almost no baggage, at least of the non-tennis variety.

"They still had to check my bags and stuff," Clijsters said of her arrival at the U.S. Open a few days ago. "It's nice to see the draw, to see your name on the top of the list there. It's definitely something — a sheet of paper — that I will take home."

The scales have shifted because of the missing sisters, Serena and Venus Williams, both suffering from injuries. As always, tennis moves on, as new story lines emerge in the absence of old ones. On the men's side, it's almost all about Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi.

Roddick, who is 20-1 and has won three tournaments since Wimbledon, became the first player to win 20 matches during the ATP summer hard-court season leading into the Open since Agassi went 20-0 in 1995. Roddick's coach, Brad Gilbert, happens to be the only other player in the last 15 years to win at least 20 hard-court matches heading into the Open, going 21-1 in 1989.

On the women's side, the Belgians, Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, have moved to the forefront because of the absent Williamses and oft-injured Lindsay Davenport. Sixth-seeded Jennifer Capriati, who is in No. 2 Henin-Hardenne's half of the draw, won Saturday at New Haven, Conn., her first title since the 2002 Australian Open.

Though Henin-Hardenne, who has won two titles this summer, has a Grand Slam singles title (the French Open) in 2003, Clijsters has come under more scrutiny because she recently took over the No. 1 ranking from Serena Williams.

Whether the questions are about her perhaps not deserving the ranking because she has not won a Grand Slam, or her increasingly tense rivalry with Henin-Hardenne, or simply about her lack of a serious nasty streak, the 20-year-old Clijsters treats them all with disarming grace.

Why? These issues are nothing too serious, really. Not after Clijsters, then in her mid-teens, almost lost her mother, Els, to cancer. Els needed a liver transplant in 1999.

"It was hard because at one stage they only told her she had two more months to live," Clijsters said in an interview earlier this month in Carson. "It wasn't a good situation. And you learn out of those things. I've always been very down-to-earth because I know a lot of people out there are in tough situations.

"When you compare those things to losing a tennis match, it's nothing. I'm happy to go home or call after my day and hear my mom on the phone."

Els, though vastly improved and expected to attend this year's U.S. Open, which starts today, continues to have significant medical concerns.

"She still has to go to the hospital and have some injections because she has to take tablets every morning and every night," Clijsters said. "She started with 30 tablets a day and now it goes down to eight or something.

"It's a struggle. But she looks great.

"It's a relief for me to see that she's doing so well. I would have given up anything if they would have told me that would make her better."

The Clijsters family remains close. Kim's father, Leo, was a star midfielder for the Belgian national soccer team, and handles her business affairs and, at times, dealings with reporters. A couple of days after an injured Venus Williams defeated Clijsters, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, in the Wimbledon semifinals, Leo held an animated conversation with a handful of Belgian reporters on the balcony just off the players' lounge.

It appeared to be a one-way talk. One reporter said that Leo had been upset because one of the writers had asked Kim about her inability to close out matches, even choking in tight situations. She had squandered two match points and a 5-1 third-set lead against Serena Williams in the Australian Open semifinals in January.

Of late, Clijsters seems to have added some mettle to the mix, perhaps taking a cue from her longtime boyfriend, former Open and Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt of Australia. Headlines were created in Belgium when she exchanged shots with Henin-Hardenne — off the court — after their final in Carlsbad earlier this month. She questioned Henin-Hardenne's sportsmanship and Henin-Hardenne implied Clijsters was a sore loser.

Henin-Hardenne won the final in three sets, regrouping after an injury timeout following the first set. Clijsters suggested Henin Hardenne, who had blisters, maybe "was faking it a little bit."

Said Henin-Hardenne on Sunday: "I think Kim was really disappointed that she lost in San Diego, and she came in press just five minutes after the end of the match. So probably she has some regrets about what she said. I think it was a little bit stupid."

An extra bit of kindling had been tossed on the fire when Clijsters' former coach, Carl Maes, told England's Daily Telegraph that he had an agreement with Henin-Hardenne's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, to quell dissent between the players or at least keep it from reaching the newspapers.

"We just didn't want the press to get hold of what is an intense rivalry — and then just blow it out of all proportion," Maes told the Telegraph. "If these incidents had got out, we knew how bad it would have been. But now it has got out. This could seriously affect their relationship."

Both women downplayed such tension Sunday. Henin-Hardenne said they have not discussed the Carlsbad event, and Clijsters pointed out Henin-Hardenne, along with Davenport and Monica Seles (out of the Open because of an injured foot), congratulated her on the No. 1 ranking.

Clijsters, who has never been past the quarterfinals at the Open, also said she doesn't plan to alter her personality to win a Grand Slam event. That was a response to U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe's assertion she wasn't mean enough or hungry enough.

"No, I am who I am," she said. "I'm not going to change that because he thinks I'm not mean enough. I don't want to be a mean person. So no, that doesn't bother me at all. I'd rather be known as a nice person than a mean person."
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