Kim Clijsters retired from the WTA tour to have a baby, but found her love for the game of tennis and the competition was too much to stay away from. Now after roughly 1-1/2 years back she is staring down re-claiming the No. 1 ranking. Inspirational, or a sad snapshot of the state of women’s tennis, or both?
On Thursday in the Sydney semifinals the Belgian gutted out a three-set win over the hard-hitting young Russian Alisa Kleybanova 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(1). Now if she beats China’s Li Na in the final, she will move from No. 3 to No. 2 on the WTA Rankings, overtaking Vera Zvonareva.
With Venus and Serena Williams perpetually suffering injuries, current No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki struggling with a racquet switch, Justine Henin still dealing with an elbow injury, and former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, Maria Sharapova and the rest floundering, how long will it be until the veteran Clijsters reclaims her seemingly rightful place atop the rankings?
Kleybanova, who plays a thumping Lindsay Davenport-type baseline game, is a bad match-up for Clijsters. She is one of the few players (like the Williams sisters in their prime) who can hit Clijsters off a court. Kleybanova beat Clijsters in their only previous meeting, but on Thursday the Belgian kept her composure from a set down. This was an element that was frequently missing from her fighting arsenal in her more mentally fragile pre-retirement days.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” said Clijsters, who was twice a break down in the third. “I’m pleased with the way I finished. It probably wasn’t my best tennis, but I worked hard for it, and that’s a big part of preparation — if you’re not able to play your own game or the way you like to play, you have to work your way through points and matches. You can get a lot out of a match like this.”
Yes, you can get a lot out of winning on your worst days. Especially when you’re seeing your fellow seeded compatriots dropping like flies. Did everyone have a few too many helpings and cocktails during the holidays rather than hitting the practice courts? This has got to be one of the worst pre-Aussie years for the women ever.
Pencil in Clijsters as the Sydney champion and the new No. 2. In fact, use a pen. Clijsters is 4-1 career head-to-head against Li, beating her most recently in straights at the 2009 US Open. Clijsters is 40-17 in career finals, Li 3-4.
Wozniacki was ranked No. 4 when she lost to Li in the fourth round at last year’s Australian Open. Clijsters lost in the third round in a 6-0, 6-1 collapse against Nadia Petrova. I’m not good at math, so I don’t know if Clijsters will have the chance to grab No. 1 from Wozniacki during the Australian Open in the coming two weeks.
Wozniacki is a paper No. 1, and cannot beat the biggest guns in the game in the form of Clijsters (0-2 career head to head), Serena Williams (0-2), and Venus Williams (0-4). Everyone else is a level below at the Grand Slams, the level the Woz will soon join. I predict she will lose pre-quarterfinals this year in Melbourne. For Woz fans (me included), hopefully she can regain her game, since she is great for the game: easy on the eyes, well spoken and someone who makes do with what she has in the terms of her on-court approach.
But if not in January, then by the end of the Indian Wells-Miami events watch Clijsters back atop the rankings.
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