Back on top, 2-time reigning US Open champ Kim Clijsters still has much to learn, achieve

By Rachel Cohen, AP
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kim Clijsters still has much to learn, achieve

NEW YORK — Kim Clijsters seems like somebody who has it all figured out.

She’s a mother, a veteran player nearly a decade removed from her first Grand Slam final. Gracious and thoughtful off the court, a two-time reigning U.S. Open champion on it.

But the 27-year-old Belgian can still find fresh experiences and new lessons, and that keeps her focused on the opportunities of the next few years of her career, not thinking about another retirement.

For one, she had never defended a major title before the last couple weeks.

“A new kind of emotion that I’ve never really experienced before,” Clijsters said in an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday morning, hours after she successfully met the challenge by dominating Vera Zvonareva in the U.S. Open final.

“That was fun to have that change in my career now that I’m a little older and still feel those new emotions.”

Clijsters recalled that she watched the 2006 U.S. Open from home with a cast on her wrist. She had won her first Grand Slam championship at Flushing Meadows the previous year, but couldn’t defend the title because of injuries. Frustration with an inability to stay healthy was part of why she soon retired from tennis.

She also wanted a family, and since her comeback to the sport just over a year ago Clijsters has proved you can have both. She limits her playing schedule to ensure she spends enough time with her 2½-year-old daughter, Jada.

In her year back on tour, Clijsters has had to learn to expect that she may struggle in the first tournament back after a layoff. It’s a sense of perspective that doesn’t come naturally to players.

“That’s a switch I’ve had to make: ‘OK, I’m taking tournaments because I need the matches and I’m working on things I want to focus on,’” Clijsters said. “It’s definitely frustrating at times.”

She recalled that back in March, she lost early at Indian Wells — then won her next tournament at Miami.

Clijsters is now a three-time Grand Slam champion, but since all three titles have come at the U.S. Open, there’s plenty she can still accomplish in tennis.

“They all motivate you in a different way,” Clijsters said of the other Grand Slams after winning again at Flushing Meadows on Saturday night.

The Australian Open, played on hard courts like the U.S. Open, is somewhere she believes she can do better. She feels a connection to Wimbledon because her late father always enjoyed his time there. And the French Open seems like home because so many Belgians attend.

Clay is her least favorite surface. Then again, she has twice reached the final at Roland Garros.

“Maybe I should embrace it a little bit more and have that confidence that I have whenever I step on a hard court,” Clijsters said.

She hopes she can apply a lesson she learned at the U.S. Open this year. Clijsters wasn’t playing her best tennis in the early rounds, but she battled through to give herself a chance to win at all. Why can’t she do the same on the uncomfortable clay at the French?

If she stays healthy, Clijsters will have at least two more chances to win at those other Grand Slams. She has said repeatedly she wants to play in the Olympics in London in 2012, but she doesn’t envision herself sticking around much longer than that.

If nothing else, there will be the matter of Jada starting school, which will mean she can’t travel with her mother any time of year. Clijsters and her husband, Brian Lynch, want more children and talk about it sometimes. But for now they’re in no rush.

Even if Jada is good at putting on the pressure.

“She’s like, ‘I want a sister. I want a brother.’ And she says it and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’” Clijsters said with a laugh. “But she’s fine. And I know that when she’s a little bit older, she’ll be very much helping out and that’s something that she looks forward to as well.”

“We have dogs for now,” she added. “So she still has other siblings.”

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