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Clijsters rises among elite
The Belgian, back in play after a debilitating wrist injury, is the first unseeded player to win the Nasdaq-100.
By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published April 3, 2005
KEY BISCAYNE - Because of Kim Clijsters' inability to win the big one, there were times when the heart and intestinal fortitude of the Belgian star were questioned.
Such talk now seems absurd.
Since returning from a career-threatening wrist injury that required surgery and forced her to miss most of last year, Clijsters looks better than ever. Saturday's workmanlike 6-3, 7-5 win over Maria Sharapova inside a windy stadium court before 11,749 fans in the Nasdaq-100 Open final was her 14th straight, and in that span she has defeated the top three in the rankings: No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, No. 2 Amelie Mauresmo and Sharapova.
"I didn't play tennis for so long," Clijsters said. "Being in that situation was very tough at times. But I think it's made me realize how much I enjoy playing tennis and how much I enjoy going to tournaments and being able to play those big matches."
In the final game, Clijsters let a 40-15 lead slip away but won at deuce when Sharapova missed into the net. On the next point, Sharapova's return of serve went long. Clijsters fell to her knees and when she stood appeared to be understandably teary-eyed.
Saturday's win, in what many label the sport's "fifth major," arguably is the biggest of her career. The former No. 1 owns two WTA Tour Championships, but is 0-4 in Grand Slam finals.
Clijsters, ranked 133rd a month ago and 38th before the Nasdaq, will move to No. 17 on Monday. She is the first unseeded player to win this event. The week before coming to South Florida, she claimed the prestigious Pacific Life Open in California and joins Steffi Graf as the only players to complete the Pacific Life-Nasdaq double.
"I've been very, very happy with the way I've been playing the last four weeks," she said.
Rain delayed the match for 57 minutes early in the first set and swirling winds caused problems for a good chunk of the match.
"The conditions definitely were not easy," said Sharapova, though not using them as an excuse. "I knew it wasn't going to be the best tennis."
At certain times, the 17-year-old Russian, who lives in Bradenton, looked unstoppable. But at others, she misplayed seemingly easy shots, some straying long and wide while others floated harmlessly into the net. Sharapova made 34 unforced errors and had her serve broken six times, an amazing number considering that is thought to be the strength of her game. Sharapova won only 48 percent of her second serves.
Clijsters' ability to keep points alive was another factor and seemed to frustrate her opponent. On several occasions, she slid low to hit shots over the net. Equally impressive is that not once did she appear fatigued.
"She's a very strong girl," Sharapova said. "Physically, she can play all day out there. Running from corner to corner is like a piece of cake for her, which for other players is not very easy."
Clijsters' wrist woes have included tendinitis, a bone bruise, a torn tendon and a painful cyst. Today, the wrist feels fine and Clijsters has taken her rightful place among the elite. While putting together perhaps the most extraordinary stretch of her career she appears ready to make another run at No. 1, and maybe claim that elusive first major title.
"I don't know what to say about all this," Clijsters said. "It's been an incredible four weeks."