Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Clijsters can threaten the established order

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The Independent Online
FIRST THERE was Dokic over Hingis, then Lucic over Seles. Surely the established order will not be upset again on No 1 Court this afternoon when the youngest player in the women's draw takes on the seven-times champion.

Kim Clijsters, who only turned 16 on June 8, used to idolise Steffi Graf to such extent that she covered her bedroom wall, at home in Belgium, with posters of her heroine. As she developed, so her interests changed and those posters have now been replaced with ones of Patrick Rafter.

Yet her admiration for Graf has not diminished, and now she finds herself on the opposite side of the net from a player who, after the early departure of Martina Hingis, is now rated a strong favourite to add another Wimbledon crown to her recent French Open title.

Clijsters is more than just an underdog. On paper, she has no right to have got this far. Runner-up at last year's junior Wimbledon, she has played in only one senior tour event, at Antwerp earlier this year. Otherwise, her career has been restricted to satellite and challenger tournaments, one of which, in Sheffield, she won.

Despite reports to the contrary, Clijsters will be able to keep her prize- money, which already amounts to over pounds 26,000 just for reaching the fourth round. Although she lists herself as being amateur, this is simply because she still attends high school in Belgium.

WTA officials say she is, to all intents and purposes, already professional, even though she is not listed as such officially. Only in the United States is there a clear distinction between amateur and professional because those wishing to play collegiate tennis are not allowed to take prize-money, which, instead, goes to their federation.

Clijsters is trying hard not to let today's occasion, weather permitting, get to her, although she cannot even contemplate how many points, let alone games, she can win against Graf. "I have no idea what to expect," she said. "All I can do is try to enjoy it."

Judging by her progress so far, Graf should not take her lightly. Clijsters has not yet dropped a set, either in the qualifying tournament or in her three main draw matches. In the second round, she beat world No 10 Amanda Coetzer, the No 12 seed. Not bad for a player whose ranking was so low, at 195 in the world, that she had to rely on four withdrawals even to get into the qualifying event.

She lists her favourite weapon as playing from the baseline, a strategy that has paid healthy dividends this year, with the ball sitting up more than usual because of all the dry weather.

What Clijsters' progress proves, along with that of Dokic and Lucic, is that the women's game has a healthy amount of depth these days. Not that this is posing too much trouble, so far, for the defending champion, Jana Novotna.

Novotna, out on Court 13 today against Nathalie Dechy of France, has been moving quietly through the tournament with no sets dropped. Her ankle injury, which threatened her appearance in the championships, appears to have cleared up.

"I'm still going through a lot of therapy on the ankle before matches," said the 29- year-old Czech, whose chances of retaining her title were significantly enhanced by the removal of Hingis from the top half of the draw.

Not that Novotna sees it that way. "I would have been happy to meet Martina. The less I worry about who I have to play, the better. I feel the pressure is on the others, now that I have done it and won my first Grand Slam championship," she says.

Something will have to give on Centre Court when Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova meet in the most attractive confrontation so far. Williams, many experts' tip for the title, says she is missing her sister Serena, who pulled out of the championship, but should get the better of Kournikova, despite the Russian's improving relationship with the grass.

But will today mark the end of the road for the Serb-born Jelena Dokic or can the 16-year-old Australian, who has shown a remarkable maturity and composure both on and off court, continue her roller-coaster ride?

This time, France's Mary Pierce, the No. 9 seed and nicknamed The Body, stands in her way. No-one, of course, expects Dokic to go all the way, least of all herself. "Let's face it, I've come from nowhere," she said. "It's a lot to expect me to go much further."

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