Grand ambition of a now famous Belgian threatens supremacy of the sisterhood

The Interview - Kim Clijsters: The No 2 seed for this week's French Open talks to Ronald Atkin about and her No 1 love match
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The Independent Online

It is time for Roland Garros, that queen of Grand Slams, and Kim Clijsters is readying herself to seize the moment, abetted by the certainty of massive support from hordes of Belgian compatriots and bolstered by the prospect that the tournament starting tomorrow might, just might, mark a watershed in the all-conquering fortunes of the Sisters Williams.

Clijsters, lucky girl, has many things to think about at the moment, all of them good: the new house she is having built, her secure relationship with Lleyton Hew-itt, an impending 20th birthday and a fast-swelling bank account further fattened by the million dollars she has amassed this year from three tournament wins.

But what Kim is thinking about most is that her time may have come; the time to capture her first Grand Slam title. She is seeded second, behind Serena Williams and immediately ahead of Venus, the American siblings who have contested the final of all four Majors since Paris 12 months ago. And the draw has decreed that she will probably need to beat both, since Venus is in her half of the field.

There has been the occasional indication of fallibility to encourage the pursuing pack. Having announced her intention of surging through the season unbeaten, Serena has already lost twice: to the other Belgian, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and France's Amélie Mauresmo. Venus has been injured and also apparently distracted by her myriad interests. Clay is the least favoured surface of the Williamses. So has the time arrived for the gallop to be halted?

Clijsters addressed this question in the shaded, rooftop players' leisure area at the Rome tournament shortly before going out to win the event. On her wedding finger glinted a gold band with a centrally-set diamond. Nice choice, Lleyton. In her eyes was another glint, one of confidence.

"This year I have become a lot more consistent. A year, year and a half ago, my playing level was similar but in a lot of matches I couldn't keep focused. Now, without really working on things like that, you learn. It just clicked, and now I feel so comfortable on court." That new-found focus was apparent in victory over Serena at the WTA Championships final in November, but an opportunity to underline it was missed in the semi-finals of the Australian Open in January. Clijsters led 5-1 in the final set, had two match points and saw Serena scrape through, the sort of result which has wrecked the resolve of other players.

"I don't regret anything from that match," Kim insisted. "It was a disappointment for a few days, but then I forgot about it. You get a new chance. That's what makes tennis such fun. Every match I get to play against the Williamses I am happy." Not too happy, surely? This year Kim also lost to Serena in the Miami semis and was beaten by Venus in the Antwerp final. Both straight sets. But the courts at the French Open will, she feels, be important: "I think my game is better suited to a quicker surface, but I grew up on clay, I feel good on it, and that is an advantage. There are others who can beat them, especially on clay - Mauresmo, Justine, Jennifer [Capriati].

"But definitely if you want to compete with the Williamses you need to be fit. Serena is stronger, faster and serves better than me, so if she is at her best she is the tougher one to beat. In the last few months she has become more consistent, but the sisters sometimes struggle to get match rhythm because they don't play many tournaments. Those are the chances that you have to grab." That weakness could prove the gap in the formidable barrier erected by the Williamses across the Grand Slam ambitions of every other rival.

And Clijsters will be carrying additional positives to Roland Garros. "I love Paris because there will be so many Belgian people there. Every time I look at the box, my mom and dad, my sister, my grandma, a lot of people out there. Plus I can get there from home by car, three hours' drive."

Clijsters has known this excitement at Roland Garros before, of course, having lost to Capriati in the final two years ago, 12-10 in the third set, the longest in the tournament's history. This time, Kim could climb to No 1 before the summer is out. Hewitt and Clijsters, the No 1 love match, like Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert in the Seventies. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Not really, says Kim with a shake of the head. "I don't have goals that have anything to do with rankings. My most important goal is to stay healthy and enjoy all this. If I work hard and get the best out of myself but don't get to No 1, who cares? I just try to be disciplined with everything that involves tennis, then we'll see how high I can go. I never look ahead and say, 'Let's try to be this high in a few months'. In fact, I find it amazing to see my name up there. Whenever I see Capriati or Davenport, Venus or Serena, I still look up to them. Being one of them is weird in one way.

"I don't see myself playing much longer than five more years. After that there is another life. You have to stay human, and I couldn't live in a hotel room all the time and just be with my coach, focusing on tennis. That's why Lleyton and I have both been going so well, because we have other things to focus on."

Grand Slams apart, what Kim is focusing on is the house being built in her home town, Bree, on the same street where her parents, Leo and Els, and her grandmother have homes. The furniture is chosen, and though it will have little in the way of carpeting ("Lleyton has a lot of allergies, and I have some, too") it promises to be secure. Kim explains. "Last winter I played an exhibition against Justine in Charleroi. She was about to get married, and her boyfriend came on court and proposed to her again in front of all the people. Because I couldn't go to the wedding I gave Justine a big bouquet of flowers." She pronounces it "bucket", the one blip in otherwise flawless English.

"Then the guy who organised the match said they had a surprise for me as well, a really expensive new alarm system, and they brought this box out. I thought they were going to give me something electronic, then this little dog popped out."

The "alarm", an English bulldog, has been named Beauty and is proving another strong tug in the desire to set up a home of her own. "I still can't believe it's mine, my actual house. It's a new step in my life, great." Bree, a small community of 9,000, is where Kim feels comfortable and avoids the consequences of being a famous Belgian. "It's probably the only place where I can go shopping and go to dinner. Everywhere else, it's different. The TV people wanted to put a camera in the car when I was taking my driving test, and one day when I came home I had to knock on my neighbours' door and ask if I could go through their back garden to get to my parents' house because of all the cameras."

There will be even more cameras when Hewitt comes to stay, though Clijsters confirms there is no formalising of their relationship in sight just yet. "We just don't think about those things, we've been steady for three and a half years now."

Though she hasn't quite succeeded in weaning Hewitt away from hot dogs and hamburgers, Kim is easing him towards her belief in natural healing and eating. "I will never take antibiotics or painkillers. They kill the bad things but they also kill good things. I would never have an injection, either. It's not natural, the body heals itself. I know not everybody thinks the same way but I just feel more energetic now."

In Paris, tennis's No 1 pairing will do what they always do and eat every night at an Indian restaurant, though Hewitt's super-stitions do not begin to match those of Clij-sters. During a tournament she tries to eat the same dish, to go to bed at the same time, to sit on the same couch. "Sometimes on court I avoid walking on the lines, but sometimes I have days when I don't care. As a junior I remember wanting to wipe out three ball marks before every point, keeping my opponent waiting if I couldn't see one. My superstitions change every week. It can get really bad sometimes, but I'm not going to say all the things I do because you'll think I'm crazy otherwise."

But when, as the interview ends, someone tells her that on my last two visits to Rome I have interviewed the woman who went on to win the French Open (Mary Pierce in 2000 and Capriati in 2001), Clijsters shakes me vigorously by the hand and hopes, grinning broadly, that my lucky run will continue. So do I.

Biography: Kim Clijsters

Born: Bilzen, Belgium, on 8 June 1983.

Height: 1.74m. Weight: 68kg.

Family: father Leo played football for Belgium, mother Els is a former track athlete. Younger sister Elke is a tennis player.

WTA Tour career titles: Singles: 13 (won first title in Luxembourg in 1999). Doubles: 7.

Rise in singles rankings: 1998: 409th. 1999: 47th. 2000: 18th. 2001: 5th. 2002: 4th.

Career high ranking: 2nd (14 April- 4 May 2003; 12 May-present).

Personal: boyfriend is Lleyton Hewitt, the men's No 1 player. She is coached by Marc Dehous, and has amassed nearly $4m in career earnings.

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