Kim Clijsters, the Comeback Kid, will turn up at Wimbledon tomorrow in far better shape than anyone has a right to expect after serious wrist and knee injuries over the past year that might have ended her career at 21. So much confidence has she gained from winning the Hastings Direct International Championship yesterday that there is every reason to expect a decent run in SW19, where the sturdy Belgian is scheduled to meet the world No 1, Lindsay Davenport, in the fourth round.
Yesterday's uneven victory by 7-5 6-0 in the final against the young Russian qualifier Vera Douchevina was the culmination of a useful fortnight of practice and match play on grass, in her first tournament on that capricious surface since losing to Venus Williams in the 2003 Wimbledon semi-finals. Surgery on her left wrist a fortnight before last year's tournament was followed by further trouble in October and a period of understandable self-doubt. "It was tough, because the doctors started doubting whether I could come back," she admitted yesterday. "When you hear doctors say that, you start worrying. So for two weeks or so it was very tough."
This year's comeback was spectacular, with victories at Indian Wells (beating Davenport in the final) and at Miami, but a knee injury hindered her confidence, as did defeat by Davenport at the French Open after leading 6-1 3-1. Arriving early at Eastbourne to get the feel of the green stuff again proved a good move, and in progressing through the week, Clijsters has felt better with each match.
"The first match on grass again was tough, getting used to the different positioning and movement on the court, but every match I've gradually started doing things better," she said. "Every day something else is starting to improve. Now it's just a matter of working hard and hoping everything fits together. I have to keep working on my wrist and the knee now as well. I feel my game's not 100 per cent, but I'm improving."
Significant improvement was discernible between the two sets yesterday, though it needed to be measured against the fatigue that suddenly set in for her opponent in the fierce heat of the midday sun. Clijsters was not afraid to come to the net - though she was sometimes comfortably passed when doing so - and her serve misfired early on.
There were five breaks in a ragged first set, the 18-year-old Douchevina lacking the guile to capitalise on her hard-earned advantage and twice being broken back immediately after leading 2-1 and 4-3. In the 12th game, Clijsters won a fine rally to gain a first set point and, urged to "finish it off, Kim", did just that.
Douchevina, whose world ranking of 54 will be improved in the next couple of days after she beat Amélie Mauresmo en route to her first final, has a powerful, double-fisted backhand but a weak second serve, which won her only three points out of 20 yesterday. Early in the second set she appeared to be flagging, and for a while could not win a point. She was duly broken in the second, fourth and, conclusively, the sixth games, though the runners-up prize of $49,500 (£27,000) was pleasant compensation.
After a first set lasting three-quarters of an hour, Clijsters had raced through the second in barely a third of that time and the final was over soon after 12.30pm, an early start having been made to ensure television coverage. The consolation for any Devonshire Park patrons feeling short-changed was an immediate promise from the popular Clijsters to return next year, though as someone who is "pretty superstitious" she must have had the fingers of that troublesome left hand crossed before committing to anything so far in the future.
She is more cautious about the prospects this week, which begins with a match against Britain's Katie O'Brien. "At the moment my level's not good enough to win [the tournament]," she said. "I have a lot to improve on and it takes time. Losing to Lindsay in Paris has given me a lot of motivation to come here and improve, because I felt my game was going nowhere."
Now it is going to south-west London and looking good: "I'm hungry and ready to go."