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Clijsters able to withstand major pressure
An 0-4 record in Grand Slam finals does not faze the Belgian star, a favorite to win the U.S. Open.
By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published August 28, 2005
Tracy Austin was stumped.
John McEnroe was speechless.
Asked to name the greatest female player without a major title during a CBS Sports conference call last week, each of the tennis legends struggled to answer.
"That," McEnroe said, "is going to require some deep thought."
Without knowing it, McEnroe had hit on something significant. Players with major titles are forever revered. But players without them are often forgotten.
"What they remember you by is how many Grand Slams you win," Austin said.
This is what Kim Clijsters faces.
She ranks among the best players of any generation. Her 27 singles titles, 352 match victories and more than $10-million in earnings put her in elite company.
But something is missing.
For all of her success, Clijsters has yet to win a Grand Slam singles title. And if you thought golf star Phil Mickelson was dogged by close calls before winning his first major a year ago, he has nothing on Clijsters.
The 22-year-old Belgian enters this week's U.S. Open with an 0-4 record in major finals. Justine Henin-Hardenne handed Clijsters three of the losses. Two of her finals defeats were blowouts. The others went three sets, including the 2001 French Open, which she lost to Saddlebrook's Jennifer Capriati 12-10 in the third.
There have been other disappointments, too.
Clijsters' most notable collapse came at the 2003 Australian Open, when leading eventual champ Serena Williams 5-1 in the third set of the semifinals, she lost 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 despite having two match points.
"She has really lost in some curious ways," longtime Boston Globe columnist Bud Collins said. "She's a wonderful player, but she really hasn't looked good in finals. The best final she played was her first."
Why hasn't Clijsters won? Nobody seems to know, and Clijsters rarely discusses the matter.
And time could be running out.
Clijsters stunned the tennis world Friday by announcing she plans to retire from the professional circuit at the end of 2007. Clijsters is ranked No.4 but spent several weeks at No.1 before serious wrist and knee injuries took their toll (she missed much of the 2004 season after a wrist operation).
"My body is already giving me a lot of problems," she told Het Laatste Nieuws.
Among players lacking a major, she arguably is the best.
Not just today, but ever.
Pam Shriver posted 21 singles titles without a major but never was ranked higher than No.3. Current star Amelie Mauresmo has 17 victories and zero majors, yet has appeared in one Grand Slam final six years ago.
Collins gives the nod to Rosie Casals, one of the sport's top stars in the 1960s and '70s. Casals won far fewer singles titles (10) than Clijsters and was noted more for her doubles prowess.
"It's a great thought, isn't it?" Collins said.
To her credit, Clijsters keeps plugging away. After every disappointing loss, the soft-spoken star has graciously congratulated her opponent and patiently answered every question from the media.
"She's so sunny and bright and says it doesn't matter," Collins said. "But you can't believe that."
On a tour that has legendary veterans and fearless newcomers, Clijsters easily is among its most gifted players.
Blessed with a strong serve and powerful groundstrokes, her incredible athleticism often is overlooked (her father was a soccer star, her mother a top gymnast). Clijsters' speed gives her superb court coverage, and she regularly performs sliding splits to reach shots others could not.
"She's the real McCoy," Austin said.
A breakthrough at the Open seems possible.
Clijsters, seeded fourth, owns a WTA-leading six singles titles this year and usually plays her best on hardcourt. She has one loss since Wimbledon and last week crushed Henin-Hardenne, the 2003 Open champion, 7-5, 6-1 at a final in Toronto.
"I've lost to her some big matches already," Clijsters said after the victory. "It's great to win some, as well. Any victory means a lot. For some reason, since my injury, they mean twice as much now. I enjoy it a lot more. I'm playing well. I don't think I could have done much better with my preparation."
Others don't seem quite as ready.
Several top players have question marks. Defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, slowed by a back injury, is 27-14 this year. Henin-Hardenne pulled a right hamstring last month. Sisters Serena (ankle, stomach, shoulder, knee) and Venus Williams (flu), both of whom are in Clijsters' side of the draw, have had their share of recent problems.
"I think there are more questions in the first week than we've seen in a women's Grand Slam in a long time," Austin said. "There's a real question of how the top players are going to play and how physically fit they're going to be."
For Clijsters, the door appears open. The question is, will she walk through it or forever be locked out?
"There's no monkey on my back," Clijsters said in Toronto. "It's hard to answer the question, "How much would it mean for you if you win it?' because I don't know. I've never been in that situation."