Sunday, September 13, 2009

Killer Kim, Vol. II

The big stage used to be TOO BIG for Kim Clijsters. At least as far as New York is concerned, that is no longer the case.

Killer Kim & Cute Jada

Three years after she was supposed to make the attempt, 2005 U.S. Open champion Clijsters finally made due on her "title defense" at the tournament, defeating 19-year old Dane Caroline Wozniacki 7-5/6-3 to claim her second career slam crown just three tournaments into her comeback after having spent two years away from the court getting married, having a baby, burying her father and generally becoming a more organized person. It'll take some additional time to see if she's also become a more accomplished and driven champion (she'll suddenly debut in the rankings inside the Top 20 on Monday, just as she was abruptly dropped per request from the computer in '07 while ranked #3), but the early results are quite encouraging.

In the opening set of the final, Clijsters immediately jumped on Wozniacki, getting an early break and taking a 2-0 lead. But then the Dane's offspeed shots, defense and long rally prowess began to cause Clijsters' feeding-off-power game to lose the crispness that was so evident against Serena Williams in yesterday's semifinal meeting. Clijsters' errors allowed C-Woz to earn back the break, then hold to take a 4-2 lead. The rest of the set turned out to be a battle to see which player could seize upon the opportunities given them by their opponent.

Wozniacki had a break chance at 4-2, but Clijsters held for 4-3. C-Woz double-faulted on break point to knot the score at 4-4 in the next game. Clijsters went up 40/love on her own serve, then saw the game go to deuce and, after the Belgian had held four game points, C-Woz broke her to take a 5-4 lead. A wide Wozniacki forehand broke her own serve to tie things again at 5-5 as the merry-go-round continued. After the Dane held a break point, and Clijsters had double-faulted on a game point of her own, the Belgian ended up holding for a 6-5 lead. Having failed to get AND maintain an advantage, Wozniacki suffered a minor lapse in the set's twelfth game and hit a few loose shots. Before she knew it, she'd been broken at love and Clijsters had taken the set at 7-5.

With the last three-set U.S. Open women's final having come all the way back in 1995, the odds were now stacked against any potential Wozniacki comeback as C-Woz was set to become the tenth different woman to lose in ten Open finals this decade (and eleventh in a row going back to '99).

In the 2nd set, Clijsters fully found her stride. Neither player faced a break point through the first five games, but that the Belgian wasn't gradually losing her grip on the match was a sign that she wsa only moments from putting it away. Then it happened. Wozniacki was broken at love to give Clijsters a 4-2 lead. Wozniacki took a love/30 lead on Clijsters' serve in the next game, but when she managed to hold to go up 5-2 it was going to take a momumental collapse for a second U.S. Open cup to not be going into her trophy case.

The "old" Clijsters might have found a way to lose this match. The "new" one just powered through the moment, not allowing herself to think too much about what she was about to accomplish. Serving at 5-3, she sailed a forehand and backhand long on consecutive points. But it was probably the wind, blowing from her back, that played a role, not Clijsters' own faltering breath. After getting to match point, a Wozniacki shot landed in the service box and Clijsters attacked it, putting away the point with swift ease and nary a hint of a trembling elbow.

7-5/6-3. Mission accomplished... even if she didn't realize she had been on a mission when she arrived in New York late last month.

So, has Clijsters now come full circle? After struggling to come through in slam finals early in her career, going 0-4 before finally meeting up with Mary Pierce in a "virtual walkover" in the Open final four years ago while donning her "Killer Kim" tights as she slayed her career-long albatross right there on Ashe Stadium, she's now 1-0 in KC II. Is her mental mettle new and improved, or will the "old" Kim return once the fairy tale aspects of her comeback melt away and she is forced to step back into the pressure-filled arena in which she's EXPECTED to win big titles. That time has now arrived/returned. Clijsters seemed sated when she won at Flushing Meadows the first time and never won another slam in KC I, going so far as to retire without playing against at Flushing Meadows. We'll have to see what she does over the entire course of the 2010 season before we have any true clue about whether she's satisfied with this second Open title in her career sequel. Her game, as well as the deficiencies of some of the other contenders in the season's four biggest tournaments, certainly say she SHOULD be able to add to her career slam total. It'll be an interesting story to follow, especially if you-know-who returns to cramp her style and make her uncomfortable just like she so often did in the old days.

Meanwhile, the charming Danish Delight takes in this whole experience, hopefully reloading during the offseason and carrying forward into next season and beyond after having made the tweaks and changes in her game (a better volley and an improved serve, to name two) that will enable her to turn around this result in the future.

Just don't go to Mexico, Caroline!

Wozniacki, Denmark's one-woman tennis caravan (Belgium and Serbia at least had TWO sets of shoulders on which to rest the collective tennis hopes), is still a work in progress. But she knows how to win matches and patiently construct points, and that's a good foundation. The stage is not too big for her. Think of her as something akin to a Hingis, version 2.0 -- three inches taller and with room to grow.

Darn you, Chris Fowler. After ESPN2's match coverage, you pretty much "stole" my potential Wozniacki title-winning Backspin headline when you said "nice people CAN finish first" after CLIJSTERS won. I know, I know... I was going to allude to the notion that one might have been able to say that about either player. A few potential headlines: "It Couldn't Happen to a Nicer Girl," "A Sunny Night in NYC" and, my personal favorite, "Charming in the City." Oh, well. Maybe next time.

C-Woz is a player who was, at alternating times during this Open, the "forgotten" teenager in the draw, as well as the unmentioned seed, the set-aside semifinalist and the overlooked finalist. Even at times during ESPN2's coverage of this match, the hint of disrespect was there whether or not the commentators realized it. When her game was favorably compared to that of Andy Murray's, while the Scot is often listed as amongst the most technically-sound and opportunistic in-game players, Wozniacki's game was often described in terms of what it DIDN'T have. Serena's serve, Venus' net coverage and volleys, Clijsters' hard ground strokes, etc. No matter. Wozniacki is closer now to being a consistent slam presence than she was two weeks ago, and a year from now might be up to matching or exceeding this result.

But, seriously, come on, Chris. We knoooooow that Clijsters is the "nicest person on the face of the earth." Or, as Tennis Channel declared last week, "the most popular player in the history of tennis." Why, it's why I semi-sarcastically dubbed her "Nice Kim" so many years ago, since no commentator could do one of her matches without turning over the egg timer and once again mentioning, as was apparently in their contract, how nice she was once gravity moved all the sand from the top of the little device to its bottom. Ahh, don't get me started. I practically had to sit on my hands and wrap a gag around my mouth at times during this match for fear that the now-mocked-unmercifully (by me, of course) KC II "clean slate" might be sullied before that other Belgian announces a comeback. Speaking of, when ESPN2's team mentioned how grudging and unwilling Clijsters was to discuss a potential Henin return, but didn't mention that the former #1 in question had said quite nice things about Clijsters' success the other day, I just about broke the slate in two. But I didn't. I was very proud of myself.

How much can change in a year? Well, consider how much has changed in the past few weeks when it comes to Clijsters. Three tournaments ago, people wondered whether or not Clijsters could compete for major titles again. Well, we have our answer. In fact, it now seems pretty stupid that it was even a question to begin with. Talent is talent, and if it can be properly harnessed through training anything is possible (and, in the case of Serena Williams, I mean ANYTHING, as we've so recently learned), if not probable.

ChrisChrisChrisChrisChrisChrisChris. Let's not poo-poo Lance Armstrong's comeback after twice as long away, then second-place finish in the month-long, grueling Tour de France -- at nearly 40 years old, a decade and a half older than some of the top competitors -- and say it wasn't on par with Clijsters winning a slam almost two years after having a baby. And Pam S., the reason why it's been so long since a mother won a slam is because most top players wait until they're at the end of their careers before they have a child, rather than leaving the sport in their prime, as SOMEONE did. Do you really think Steffi Graf or Chris Evert couldn't have had a child and then won more slams if they'd briefly walked away from the sport in their early twenties? Come now, let's not ascribe superpowers to Kim just because she's talented AND nice, a strange concept sometimes on the tennis tour in some circles, maybe... but not as alien as it has so often been made out to be whenever a Clijsters match is broadcast. And, no, this doesn't count as "dirtying" the slate -- it's just an aside with a nifty golden hue. That's a VERY important distinction, don't you know.

In the end, Clijsters lifts the trophy once again, but don't call her "Cinderella" or a weaver of a "magical" tale. As I said, talent is talent. Clijsters was the first player ever to reach #1 without having won a slam title (not surprisingly, without the same drumbeat of denial that we see today when players not named Williams ascend to the top spot without first having "earned their stripes" in Melbourne, Paris, London or New York), so she's always had the necessary ability to do the deed. Once she reclaimed her desire and got into "tennis tour shape" before her return this summer, she immediately became a threat. Just ask Marion Bartoli, Victoria Azarenka and all the other Top 10/20 players she beat this summer before she even arrived in Flushing Meadows.

After taking so long for the original "Killer Kim" to emerge from post-production, "Vol. II" turned out to be a rather entertaining affair, churned out with surprising swiftness while not scrimping on the budget. Even the cameo by the "NextGen" star was ticket-worthy.

Okay, I admit, Jada IS quite cute. I'm not made of stone, after all.

Kim Clijsters is the U.S. Open champion. Unlike the last time, I don't say that through gritted teeth. I guess that's what you'd call progress, right?

How tenuous the peace is, though, might depend on whether or not a certain diminutive one-handed backhander decides to grant future "permission" to rearrange the slate... err, I mean table.

...meanwhile, I think Wozniacki is now speaking her fifteenth different language into the on-court microphone. Someone remember to call her courtesy car. other news, Serena Williams was fined $10,500 for her actions on Saturday night, and issued a public apology (no word on which came first). She won't be defaulted from the doubles final with Venus (they're set to face Cara Black & Liezel Huber in the final tomorrow, before the men's final) after a review of the audio from her verbal assault on the lineswoman, though, during last night's semifinal against Clijsters. Further action after the tournament is possible. junior finals, another British girl has won a slam Girls title. Heather Watson, previously in the long shadow of Laura Robson, defeated Yana Buchina (who beat Robson in the semis) in the singles final. Aussie Bernard Tomic defeated American Chase Buchanan in the Boys final. Valeria Solovieva (RUS) and Maryna Zanevska (UKR) won the Girls Doubles, while Marton Fucsovics (HUN) and Hsieh Cheng-Peng (TPE) took the Boys Doubles.

...Dlouhy/Paes defeated Bhupathi/Knowles in the Men's Doubles final. Meanwhile, Roger Federer will play in his sixth straight Open men's final on Monday against a sixth different player. This time it's Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine won't likely have any more luck than Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi or Lleyton Hewiit did.

...this past week's "ITF Player of the Week" goes to Petra Martic. The Croat, who qualified for the U.S. Open and won a main draw match, carried over her momentum to the $100K event in Biella, Italy. There, she defeated the likes of Polona Hercog and Jelena Dokic en route to the final, where she took out Sharon Fichman 7-5/6-4.

...and, finally, as always, it's already time to look ahead:

QUEBEC CITY, QUE CANADA (Int'l $220K/hard court indoor)
08 Final: Petrova d. Mattek
09 Top Seeds: Petrova/Lisicki

Petrova d. Wozniak
King d. Lisicki
Petrova d. King

...hopefully, Nadia can put the Oudin loss behind her and kick off her 4Q by defending her '08 title. I included Lisicki in the picks, but is she healthy? I'm kind of surprised she's even playing so soon after that ankle injury on match point at the Open. King has had a nice summer, and might be an under-the-radar pick to win her second career title ('06 Bangkok).

GUANGZHOU, CHINA (Int'l $220K/hard court outdoor)
08 Final: Zvonareva d. Peng
09 Top Seeds: Medina-Garrigues/Zheng

Wienerova d. Hsieh
Zheng d. Peng
Zheng d. Wienerova

...the top half of the draw sort of looks like an ITF event, while the bottom half (with Zheng, Peng & Peer) is much stronger. Something to watch: if Kimiko Date-Krumm can somehow get past her 1st Round match with perennially inconsistent #1-seed Anabel Medina-Garrigues, she might have a shot to win her first tour title since 1996. Hey, after this U.S. Open, who's to question that it might happen?

(WC) Kim Clijsters/BEL def. #9 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN 7-5/6-3

#1 Roger Federer/SUI vs. #6 Juan Martin Del Potro/ARG

#1 Black/Huber (ZIM/USA) vs. #4 Williams/Williams (USA/USA)

#4 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND) def. #3 Bhupathi/Knowles (IND/BAH) 3-6/6-3/6-2

Gullickson/Parrott (USA/USA) def. #2 Black/Paes (ZIM/IND) 6-2/6-4

#11 Heather Watson/GBR def. Yana Buchina/RUS 6-4/6-1

#3 Bernard Tomic/AUS def. Chase Buchanan/USA 6-1/6-3

Solovieva/Zanevska (RUS/UKR) def. #3 E.Bogdan/Lertcheewakarn (ROU/THA) 1-6/6-3/10-7

Fucsovics/Hsieh (HUN/TPE) def. Obry/Puget (FRA/FRA) 7-6/5-7/10-1

2000 Venus Williams def. Lindsay Davenport
2001 Venus Williams def. Serena Williams
2002 Serena Williams def. Venus Williams
2003 Justine Henin-Hardenne def. Kim Clijsters
2004 Svetlana Kuznetsova def. Elena Dementieva
2005 Kim Clijsters def. Mary Pierce
2006 Maria Sharapova def. Justine Henin-Hardenne
2007 Justine Henin def. Svetlana Kuznetsova
2008 Serena Williams def. Jelena Jankovic
2009 Kim Clijsters def. Caroline Wozniacki

*VENUS WILLIAMS US OPEN DEFEATS... a prerequisite for greatness?*
1997 F- Martina Hingis (Hingis won title)
1998 SF- Lindsay Davenport (Davenport won title)
1999 SF- Martina Hingis
2000 Venus won title
2001 Venus won title
2002 F- Serena Williams (Serena won title)
2003 DNP
2004 4th Rd.- Lindsay Davenport
2005 QF- Kim Clijsters (Clijsters won title)
2006 DNP
2007 SF- Justine Henin (Henin won title)
2008 QF- Serena Williams (Serena won title)
2009 4th Rd.- Kim Clijsters (Clijsters won title)

AO: Madison Brengle, USA
RG: Mariana Duque-Marino, COL
WI: Urszula Radwanska, POL
US: Kristina Kucova, SVK
AO: Jessica Moore, AUS & Arantxa Rus, NED
RG: Simona Halep, ROU & Elena Bogdan, ROU
WI: Laura Robson, GBR
US: Gabriela Paz, VEN
AO: Ksenia Pervak, RUS
RG: Daria Gavrilova, RUS
WI: Timea Babos, HUN & Miyabi Inoue, JPN
US: Heather Watson, GBR

NR - Kim Clijsters, BEL - US Open (W)
#201 - Alexandra Dulgheru, ROU - Warsaw (W)
#126 - Sania Mirza, IND - Pattaya (L)

NR - Evonne Goolagong, 1977 Australian Open
#111 - Chris O'Neil, 1978 Australian Open
#81 - Serena Williams, 2007 Australian Open
#68 - Barbara Jordan, 1979 Australian Open

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Serena Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Serena Williams/USA
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Eva Hrdinova/CZE def. Laura Robson/GBR 7-6/4-6/7-6
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd.- Melanie Oudin/USA d. #4 Elena Dementieva/RUS 5-7/6-4/6-3
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd.- Melanie Oudin/USA d. #29 Maria Sharapova 3-6/6-4/7-5
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): SF- (WC) Kim Clijsters d. #2 Serena Williams/USA 6-4/7-5
FIRST SEED OUT: #25 Kaia Kanepi/EST (1st Rd.-Chang/TPE)
FIRST WIN: (WC) Vania King/USA (def. Anastasiya Yakimova/BLR)
UPSET QUEENS: The Americans
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Anastasia Rodionova/AUS (3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Melanie Oudin/USA
MS. OPPORTUNITY: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
CRASH & BURN: #4 Elena Dementieva/RUS (2nd Rd.-Oudin/USA
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #10 Flavia Pennetta/ITA (saved 6 MP in 4th Rd. vs. Zvonareva/RUS)
DOUBLES STAR: Carly Gullickson/USA

All for Day 14. More tomorrow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad to see Caroline lost.

and she's just a few months younger than me.

Mon Sep 14, 08:19:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Kim's recent comments about the state of the tour should have ended any perceptions that only measured sweetness comes out of her mouth. I rather enjoyed those comments, and felt--after I heard them--that she was ready to put her money where her mouth was.

This was one final of which I would have been pleased with the outcome, no matter who won. Both storylines were good, in an Open chock-full of big stories.

I didn't expect Kim to come back, but I'm glad she did.

Mon Sep 14, 09:40:00 AM EDT  

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