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Life without Williams

There must be a group of WTA marketing executives who shudder to think of women’s tennis without the star power of the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena Williams have become the ubiquitous symbol of women’s tennis. They have become so dominant, they claimed eight of the last 11 Grand Slam titles, including the last four making up the 'Serena Slam'. But the 2003 season has brought a refreshing change of tournament champions as a host of young stars have begun to emerge.

Russian phenom Elena Dementieva finally broke through to win her first of an expected many professional titles. Her compatriot Anastasia Myskina has already won a pair of titles this year, solidifying Russia as a tennis superpower. Greek star Eleni Daniilidou added another title to her growing collection. Justine Henin-Hardenne is quietly putting together her best year after coming off a massive win over Serena Williams to win the Family Circle Cup, while dealing the world number one her first loss of 2003.

But history has shown not all players can meet the expectations created by their potential. Former teen sensations Mirjana Lucic, Iva Majoli, and Anke Huber were all expected Grand Slam champions and possible world number ones. After brief stints in the top ten and a few cameo appearances in Grand Slam finals and semi-finals, they all slumped into obscurity. Even among the current contenders, several will never taste Grand Slam glory or know the feeling of being on top of the world, especially at the height of the Williams era. Perhaps the player most likely to carry the WTA tour into life after Williams and supplant Serena as the world number one is Kim Clijsters.

In the past 6 months, the Belgian wonder has been the hottest player on tour. Forget for a moment Clijsters has yet to win a Slam, and forget the tragic meltdown she fashioned against Serena in the Australian Open semi-final. With endless hype over glamour players like Anna Kournikova and Daniela Hantuchova, Clijsters has long been regarded at the real deal. After her incredible run at the 2001 French Open, reaching the final and stretching Jennifer Capriati to 12-10 in the final set, it was settled. Clijsters was Next.

As a kid, she idolized the greatest of all greats, Steffi Graf and Clijsters’ game is a carbon copy of her hero’s. She possesses a punishing forehand, blistering serve and covers the court better than any other player on tour. She also owns a strong backhand, a competent net game and no glaring weaknesses. Clijsters was first noticed in her Grand Slam debut, reaching the 4th round of Wimbledon in 1999. Later that year she was up 5-3 in the third set on eventual U.S. Open champion Serena Williams. Everyone knew this kid was destined for greatness.

A good indication of a future world number one is an ability to defeat former and current world number ones. Clijsters has already won a pair of titles this year, both wins over Lindsay Davenport and toppled Serena for last year’s season-ending championships. Last month she reached a career-high ranking of number two in the world, finally breaking the 1-2 Williams stranglehold atop the world rankings. As brief as it was, she was sandwiched between both Williams in the world rankings. But it may not be long before Clijsters’ name precedes theirs.

For, I'm Paula Kim.
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