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All-Belgian final in Open

World No.1 Kim Clijsters faces French Open champ Justine Henin-Hardenne.

KEITH NIEBUHR
Published September 6, 2003

NEW YORK - As far as hurdles go, the one standing before Kim Clijsters must feel as imposing as the New York skyline.

She is No.1 in the rankings.

And some believe her skills rival any in the women's game. Yet when the 20-year-old, who defeated No.3 Lindsay Davenport 6-2, 6-3 in a 63-minute semifinal Friday at Arthur Ashe Stadium, takes the court tonight against fellow Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne, who defeated Saddlebrook's Jennifer Capriati 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-4), for the U.S. Open championship, she will do so knowing one simple, painful fact.

Never has she won the big one.

Clijsters is a six-time semifinalist in majors, but is without a championship. She reached the final of the French Open this year, falling to Henin-Hardenne 6-0, 6-4 and in 2001 when she lost a grueling match 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 to Capriati.

"I've been playing real well here," Clijsters said. "I hope to go one step further, but it will be very tough. I'll have to play better than I have this whole tournament. I think I've stayed focused throughout every match."

Henin-Hardenne, who trains at Saddlebrook, was on the brink of defeat several times. But she rallied from 5-2 down in the final set, then took control in the tiebreaker. The match lasted 3 hours, 3 minutes and ended at 12:27 a.m. Both fought exhaustion. Henin-Hardenne also battled cramps to reach her first Open final.

"I'm so tired," Henin-Hardenne said. "I just gave everything I had. I just did my best. I'm very happy."

Clijsters improved to 8-6 all-time against 1998 champion Davenport, 5-0 this year. All but one of the 2003 meetings was won in straight sets.

Clijsters has not lost a set in the Open, though she faced four seeded players, two in the top five (No.5 Amelie Mauresmo was the other). Clijsters' best previous Open was in 2001, when she reached the quarterfinals. She lost in the fourth round last year.

"She has been so impressive," said two-time Open champion Tracy Austin, a commentator for USA. "She had the toughest draw by far of anybody in the tournament. She has played through it with control and aggression."

Clijsters had Davenport against the ropes from the start, breaking her serve in the second game and three more times in the 28-minute opening set. She kept Davenport, who played the past few weeks on a sore left foot, scrambling and created 35 unforced errors (Clijsters had 16). Davenport had 10 in her previous match.

Clijsters also served better and was stronger on the clutch points. She broke Davenport six times in 10 chances. Davenport converted 53 percent of her first serve attempts. On her second serve, she lost 19 of 29 points.

Clijsters replaced Serena Williams, who missed the event because of a knee injury, atop the WTA Tour rankings Aug.11, becoming the first woman at No.1 without having won a major. She will keep the ranking no matter what happens today, but Clijsters would like to jump that hurdle now. Before it keeps getting taller.

"There's a lot of talk about no Grand Slam. A lot of attention. Those things don't bother me," Clijsters said. "The No.1 spot - nobody can take that away from me. I'm only 20 years old. I'll have a lot of chances to play more Grand Slams."

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