Clijsters Becomes An Open Dynasty With Her Third Title

Daughter Jada sat in the stands playfully pulling designer watches up her right wrist as if they were toy bracelets. On the court below, Jada’s famous mother, sporting the same blond haystack hairstyle, turned the title match into child’s play in issuing a tennis time-out to Vera Zvonareva. Playing with the speed of a dutiful mom determined to get her daughter home for bed time, Kim Clijsters crushed Zvonareva, 6-2, 6-1 to capture her third US Open championship.

It was the most lopsided women’s final since Chris Evert dismantled Evonne Goolagong, 6-3, 6-0, in the 1976 final and the shortest women’s final since the USTA has timed title matches (in some pre-Open Era years players did not sit down on changeovers, resulting in finals that lasted less than an hour).

“A little bit of experience definitely helps,” said Clijsters, who collected the $1.7 champion’s check plus a $500,000 bonus for finishing second in the US Open Series to Caroline Wozniacki, the woman she defeated in the 2009 final. “Last year was a lot more confusing not having played for so long. So it was kind of different emotions starting to the tournament. I was able to play, especially in my last two matches, at my highest level. Obviously you want to do well at the places you’ve done well before. I know if I played well and if I’m healthy I can beat any of the top players.”

The second-seeded Belgian stretched her US Open winning streak to 21 matches, successfully defending her Flushing Meadows championship in dispensing her most comprehensive conquest of the tournament.

Give Clijsters 60 minutes (the official match time was 59 minutes) and she’ll give you a major title. Clijsters completely overpowered and overwhelmed Zvonareva, who was helpless to slow a woman playing at the peak of her powers, and sobbed into her towel after the match. Zvonareva’s eyes still glistened with tears as she spoke to the crowd following her second straight Grand Slam final loss.

“(I’m doing) a little bit better right now than 10 minutes ago when I was losing everything,” Zvonareva said in bringing some levity to a humbling defeat. “Kim just played tremendously well today and she deserved to win. Even though I’m disappointed at the moment, I still love New York.”

Zvonareva beat Clijsters in their last two meetings, scoring a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 win in the Wimbledon quarterfinals and registering a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory in the Montreal quarterfinals last month. The Wimbledon loss was particularly painful because it came after Clijsters defeated arch rival Justine Henin and appeared to be on course for a climactic clash with Serena Williams.

“I knew getting into the match which things were that I didn’t do well in the matches I lost,” Clijsters said. “Obviously the one at Wimbledon was, to me one of the most disappointing losses that I’ve dealt with so far in my career.”

Clijsters tried to overpower Zvonareva in those losses, this time she varied the height, speed and spin on her shots and applied relentless pressure with her fast feet and sliding, skidding splits.

“She’s the type of player who is consistent and likes the pace and likes to take over the pace from opponents,” Clijsters said. “I think today I was able to just mix it up well and just stay calm during the rally as well. Just put enough pressure and variety in there to throw up some high balls here and there. I think that just got her thinking even more just besides the fact that she was probably thinking about the occasion where she was playing and being in another final, which is always something that does have an effect on the way you feel, obviously.”

Still, the seventh-seeded Russian got off to a solid start and played Clijsters on even terms through the first four games in forging a 2-all tie. Then the blowout began.

Clijsters found the sweet spot on her Babolat and began to blister the ball with such confidence the shots flowed like all the right answers on a standardized tests. Zvonareva plays a similar style to Clijsters, but the former World No. 1 is bigger, stronger, more athletic and does everything a bit better.

Clijsters held for 3-2 to ignite an imposing run that saw her reel off seven straight games and effectively put the match out of reach.

“Physically today she was just much better than me,” Zvonareva said. “Physically, i was not capable of playing the same level as I was able to play yesterday….I tried my best out there. I gave 100%. I was not able to hang in there physically. Hopefully, I will have another chance.”

Characteristically classy, Clijsters took time out to console Zvonareva before raising the shiny silver US Open title trophy. Clijsters, who dropped her first four major finals, is the only woman in Open Era history to lose her first four Grand Slam finals before winning one. She put that experience to good use in offering encouraging words to Zvonareva immediately after the match.

“I think she’s a great person and she really knows how to be in those situations,” Zvonareva said. “When she gives such support, it’s great from her. She’s a great champion, but also a great person. Maybe because she said that maybe I’m not so disappointed right now.”

It was such a thorough thrashing coming in the aftermath of the Novak Djokovic’s dramatic five-set semifinal victory over five-time US Open champion Roger Federer, Clijsters sounded slightly chagrined by the result that sent the masses, who had waited anxiously for the men’s semifinal to end, streaming for the masses.

The 27-year-old Clijsters is the first woman since Venus Williams in 2001 to successfully defend the US Open championship and is the first woman to win three US Open titles in three consecutive appearances since Hall of Famer Chris Evert, who was in  Arthur Ashe Stadium tonight, won four straight US Open crowns from 1975 to 78.

Clijsters, husband Brian Lynch, a former Villanova basketball star, and their daughter Jada call New Jersey home for several weeks each summer. The Belgian-born Jersey girl has dominated the largest Grand Slam stage in the world as if it’s her own Garden State backyard.

When Clijsters beat Mary Pierce in the 2005 US Open final,  to claim her first career Grand Slam title, she capped a commanding hard-court season in which she posted a 36-1 record on North American hard courts.

Returning to New York as a wild card last summer, she beat both Venus Williams and Serena Williams en route to the final before sweeping Caroline Wozniacki to capture the 2009 Open crown.

In the aftermath of that match, daughter Jada captured the hearts of fans playfully tugging at her mother’s leg and pulling off the top of the silver title trophy as if it were part of her toy collection. Mother and daughter embraced again tonight and in the post-match interview Clijsters, who has already walked away from the game once and is well aware of how small the window of opportunity can be for champions, spoke about her desire to collect another major.

Widely respected for both her grace and game, Clijsters has become an adopted citizen of all four Grand Slam host cities. Formerly engaged to Lleyton Hewitt, she is revered as an honorary Aussie in Melbourne where some fans still call her “Aussie Kim”. She reached her first Grand Slam final at the 2001 French Open, falling to Jennifer Capriati, 12-10, in the third set and with Belgium bordering France she remains a popular presence in Paris. Clijsters is so well respected at Wimbledon, the only major where she’s yet to reach a final, the All England Club invited her to join Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Tim Henman to play the roof raising exhibition event in May of 2009.

“They all motivate you in a different way, obviously,” Clijsters said. “Tactic-wise you always have to adjust a little bit to each and every single one of them. But I think the one where I’ve felt I can do better than I have is obviously the Australian Open. Similar surface. They’ve gone away from the Rebound Ace in the last couple of years. So I’ve always enjoyed playing there. That’s obviously a Grand Slam I want to do well. I want to do well in all of them, of course.”

Daughter Jada is two-and-half years old now and Clijsters says she wants to have more children in the coming years so the watch on her daughter’s wrist is a reminder the career clock is ticking down.

“I would like to keep it going until the (2012) Olympics,” Clijsters said. “But then again, you never know what can happen. My main goal is to try and just stay injury free. if I can do that and if I can practice hard and work hard obviously the Grand Slams will always  be my focus. So now that I’m playing well obviously I’m not going to just give it up. I just want to keep it up.”

Clijsters made quick work of Zvonareva tonight and plans to make the most of her time in achieving her aim of taking these successful New York Nights on the road and winning another Grand Slam title.

“I will try everything that I can to be in the best shape possible to try to achieve what I achieved here,” said Clijsters, who then worked her way toward the door to take care of another important obligation: putting Jada to bed.

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

Clijsters Goes for an Open Dynasty

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – The distance between the two old rivals shrunk to the size of the sweatband Kim Clijsters used to swipe the sweat off her forehead. The reigning US Open champion had watched her third-set lead evaporate and could hear Venus Williams’ fast footsteps approaching net with the set deadlocked at 4-all. That’s when Clijsters created closure by playing over Williams’ head.

Lofting a looping topspin lob into the wind, Clijsters watched the ball sail over Williams’ outstretched Wilson racquet and land a few feet inside the baseline, earning her the crucial break and a 5-4 lead.

Exploring every stroke in her shot spectrum, Clijsters served out a tense 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-4 conquest of Williams in a rollercoaster of a wildly windy match to advance to her fourth US Open final in her last four Flushing Meadows appearances.

“I thought as long as I keep trying, I have to make one,” Clijsters said of the lob. “It’s instinct. You decide to do that and it works. It was an important point and I’m happy to get through. You can put a little bit more behind it because I was against the wind.”

It was Clijsters’ 20th consecutive US Open victory, tying her with Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles and Venus for the second-longest US Open winning streak in the Open Era.

“It obviously means a lot to be in the final and to give myself a chance to defend my my title from last year. It’s a great opportunity,” Clijsters said. “I think today was probably one of the best matches that I’ve played throughout the tournament. I was able to raise my level, and that’s probably what I’m most please about is obviously I was able to win a close match like this, but that I was able to kind of rise to the occasion when I had to.”

It was the 13th meeting between Venus and Clijsters, who has won five in a row to take a 7-6 lead in the head-to-head series. Tennis’ top working mom denied Williams’ quest to return to the US Open final for the first time since 2002. Williams entered the Open without playing a single match during the US Open Series yet came within a few points of navigating her way to the final.

“I definitely feel like I’ll be back next year. This is what I do, and I feel like I played great tennis even with minimal preparation,” Venus said. “Obviously I would have liked to win this match and be playing tomorrow.  I may have lost the match, but that’s just this match.  There will be others.”

Serena Williams, looking champion chic in Venus’ support box, sat this Open out and in Serena’s absence Clijsters is the best hard-court player in the world, in part because she’s the most balanced offensively and defensively. Then there’s the fact she’s always been at her best on North American hard-courts. When she stormed to her first career Grand Slam title at the 2005 US Open, Clijsters simply wore out Williams in rallying for a 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 quarterfinal victory, and posted a 36-1 record on American hard courts that year.

“I always feel good here so I know that if I play good tennis and if I can give myself an opportunity to get into that second week and play those big matches, I mean this is where I’ve played some of the best tennis that I’ve ever played,” Clijsters said. “So if I can give myself those opportunities to play these kind of matches and not get surprised by opponents in the beginning of the tournament, then anything is possible.”

The second-seeded Clijsters will carry a 5-2 career record into tomorrow night’s final against Vera Zvonareva. But Zvonareva has the game to pose problems for the two-time champion as evidenced by the fact she’s won their last two meetings. Zvonareva surprised Clijsters, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in June then grounded a slightly hobbled Clijsters, who suffered a leg strain, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 in last month’s Montreal quarterfinals.

A Wimbledon finalist in singles and doubles, Zvonareva doesn’t have one overwhelming weapon, but she can hit any shot from any position on the court and showcased her net skills in today’s first semifinal.

“She’s a very, very tough opponent. Obviously, I’ve lost my last two matches with her,” Clijsters said. “She’s a player who doesn’t give you much. It’s not that she has a game that’s very unpredictable, but what she does, she does extremely well. It’s gonna be a lot different match than it was today. She has a really good backhand and she’s been serving a lot better in the last few months.”

The seventh-seeded Russian surrendered serve just once in scoring a stirring 6-4, 6-3 victory over top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki to advance to her second consecutive Grand Slam final.

Zvonareva snapped Wozniacki’s 13-match winning streak by playing with purpose and passion in persistently pushing the 2009 US Open finalist into defensive positions on the court.

“Any match with Kim will come down to the tough challenge,” Zvonareva said. “She’s a great mover on the court.  She has a lot of experience.  She won here last year. You know, it’s going to be tough. We played a couple of matches for the past couple of months, but those matches are in the past.”

Williams missed the entire US Open Series while recovering from a knee injury. Her court appearances were confined to World TeamTennis, a few clinics and a book signing appearance at the Los Angeles tournament. Though she was short on match play, Williams wields an abundance of experience, a whipping 120 mph first serve and wisely acted on the fact she could not grind with Clijsters today. Her best shot was moving forward and pressuring the reigning champion.

Pressure, the tormenting winds and Clijsters’ unrelenting pursuit of every ball created a cocktail of torture for Williams in the tiebreaker as she hit two of her seven double faults in the break then badly bungled an easy overhead to fall behind 1-5. Banging a backhand into the net, Williams handled Clijsters five set points and she closed the set in 62 minutes.

“Obviously in the tie break I wasn’t able to play as well as I wanted,” Williams said. “I had too many errors, and she played some good tennis”

Clijsters saved a break point in her opening service game of the final set. She broke for a 2-1 lead when Williams buried a backhand into the net.

Serving at 4-3,Clijsters unravaled in committing two double faults. She had a clear look at the open court but slapped a swinging forehand volley four feet long to hand back the break and it was 4-all.

Father Richard Williams was gnawing nervously on a toothpick as his daughter tried to consolidate the break only to see Venus victmized when Clijsters rode the current of the blustery breeze with two  running rainbow lobs that lit up the murky sky. Stabbing a stretch backhand lob in the corner, Clijsters hammered a forehand winner down the line and when Venus double faulted beyond the box, Clijsters had double break point.

Staying true to her game plan, Williams did the right thing and attacked net behind a vicious forehand, but did not do enough with the forehand volley and paused momentarily to watch that shot land. That’s when Clijsters, hitting against the wind, went airborne with the lob that broke Williams’ serve and shattered her hopes in the process.

“I felt like I was trying to be aggressive in that game, and I came in you know, three out of five points.  Unfortunately it didn’t work for me,” Williams said. “She was playing against the wind, so it just blows the ball back in.  There’s not so much I could do on those points.  It was kind of a little bit of bad luck for me. You know, she just played to win.”

A Clijsters’ win in tomorrow’s 7 p.m. final would make her the first woman to successfully defend the Open since Venus did it in 2001.

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

Ana On The Move Again

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Tennis is a numbers game, but Ana Ivanovic refuses to be defined by the digits next to her name. The former World No. 1 is not seeded in this US Open, but that hasn’t stopped her from surging into the third round for the first time in three years. Ivanovic stomped 21st-seeded Zheng Jie, 6-3, 6-0, in a commanding conquest and has a shot to go deeper in the draw with the departure of 13th-seeded Marion Bartoli.

In a match of French women, 157th-ranked wild card Virginie Razzano surprised former Wimbledon finalist Bartoli, 7-5, 6-4. It’s a break for Ivanovic, who will face Razzano rather than Bartoli. Two-handed terror Bartoli beat Ivanovic in straight sets in Stanford last month.

The 40th-ranked Ivanovic has surrendered just eight games in reaching the third round and is playing with much more confidence than she was two years ago when as World No. 1 she fell to 188th-ranked qualifier Julie Coin in Flushing Meadows.

“I think rankings obviously tell a lot about the player, but I think just the way you feel about your game at the time,” Ivanovic said. “I remember a couple years ago when I was here and I was saying, ‘Even though I’m No. 1, I don’t feel I’m playing as No. 1.’  Now I’m ranked,  I really don’t know what. But I feel like I’m playing like a top 10 player, you know, and I have confidence that I can beat these players.  That’s huge for me.”

She looked particularly pumped up for today’s rematch with Zheng and with good reason. Two years ago, the then 133rd-ranked Zheng became the third lowes-tranked player to defeat a World No. 1 when she pounded out a 6-1, 6-4 win over Ivanovic at Wimbledon.

This time around, Ivanovic played first-strike tennis in firing her forehand with ambition and accuracy.

The tennis treadmill seemed stuck in reverse for Ivanovic, who had won back-to-back matches at just three of the first 11 tournaments she played this season, reaching the semifinals at Brisbane in her first event of the season and advancing to the Rome semifinals in May.

With her confidence in tatters and game leaking errors, Ivanovic watched her ranking fall to No. 63 and was denied a Rogers Cup wild card as the tournament director publicly suggested she was not worthy of a wild card. That rebuke seemed to fire up Ivanovic and she surged to the Cincinnati semifinals last month.

Ivanovic played with a fearlessness on her ascent to the top of the tennis rankings and admits she played with the apprehension of a woman bearing the burden of trying to defend ranking points.

“I see myself also as two different persons,” Ivanovic said. “Once you’re actually coming up and you have no expectations, you are hungry for success, and you really don’t know what the stakes are.  You just go for it.  You have no fear.  You play freely against anyone you come up against.”

The pressure constricted Ivanovic’s competitive instincts and she broke down in tears after losses earlier this season.

“Once you actually get in a position to defend some points and there is more outside pressure coming in, it is a lot different story,” Ivanovic said. “Because even though you perceive yourself the same or maybe even better, if you’re improving, still there is a lot of outside effect. That creates some doubts and obviously pressure.  Everyone deals with it differently.  That’s what I feel it was the biggest change with me, is that I managed to sort of let go of this.”
Winning six of her last seven matches has been emotionally liberating for Ivanovic, who looks like a player no longer afraid of losing.

“Now I feel, you know, as I am just coming up again, and I have really nothing to lose.  I got that joy of competing again,” Ivanovic said.

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.