Most of the top players sign a few token autographs as they leave Centre Court after a big match. Not Kim Clijsters. She signs every hat, programme and outsized tennis ball thrust beseechingly at her from the stands. "There are always lots of children and I don't want to disappoint anyone," she explained last week. "Once I missed a little girl and she burst into tears."
That Clijsters is one of the most pleasant and friendly players on the tour is beyond dispute. What also seems certain is that the 19-year-old Belgian will win a Grand Slam in the near future. The only question is when, and it could be as early as next week, judging by her form so far at the Australian Open.
The No 4 seed beat Tatiana Poutchek of Belarus 6-2 6-1 in 55 minutes yesterday, a rather leisurely third-round affair compared to her 33-minute dismissal of Petra Mandula on Thursday. If she survives the next two rounds, she will meet Serena Williams in the semi-finals and sister Venus in the final: a daunting prospect given the pair's domination of women's tennis for the past season.
If anyone can break their stranglehold, it could be Clijsters, particularly since Jennifer Capriati's upset at the hands of Germany's Marlene Weingartner in the first round here. The Belgian defeated the sisters back-to-back in the season-ending WTA Tour Championships in Los Angeles in November, and counts the victory over Serena – her first in six meetings – as one of the highlights of her career.
At Melbourne Park, she has dropped only six games so far and had won 18 consecutive games until a brief lapse of concentration gave two on the trot to Poutchek yesterday. To add to the statistical pot, she has notched up 24 wins in 26 matches, triumphing at four of her last five tournaments in a brilliant run of form dating back to Filderstadt last October.
Yesterday Clijsters was quick out of the blocks, running the 24-year-old Belarussian around court and sending winners into the gaps, to frequent cries of "Nyet!" from a disconsolate Poutchek. She broke serve in the second game and again in the fourth before a series of unforced errors gave her opponent eight successive points, narrowing the score to 5-2.
Jolted by losing two games to love, the Belgian regained control, breaking Poutchek's serve to win the first set in 27 minutes with a muscular smash. She played aggressive and confident tennis until the final minutes of the second set, when the Belarussian saved three match points before landing a cross-court forehand wide on the fourth.
Poutchek, the world No 108, said afterwards: "I tried my best out there, but she was everywhere. She's on really good form. She always fights until the end, no matter how she plays and who she plays."
Clijsters has certainly done her homework, spending the off-season practising in Adelaide with her boyfriend, Lleyton Hewitt, to acclimatise to the heat. Hewitt, the world No 1, said last week that she was playing well enough to win the title. That opinion may be a shade biased, but others, including Lindsay Davenport, the 1999 champion, have tipped her to go far in Melbourne.
The Belgian says she is happy with her game. She has improved her serve in the past 12 months, gained more control over her powerful forehand and become more consistent.
Cautious pundits point out that she has only reached one Grand Slam final: the 2001 French Open, when she was vanquished by Capriati.
Clijsters will need every weapon in her armoury as well as nerves of steel if she plays Serena, who is determined to add the Australian Open title to her collection of three Grand Slams. The Williams sisters, who contested the French, US and Wimbledon finals last year, are seeded to meet on the day of reckoning once again.
The Belgian laughed and shrugged yesterday when asked how badly she wanted to win her first Grand Slam event. "I'm definitely not the type of player who only focuses on the Grand Slams," she said. "It would be great, of course, but I'm just focusing on my matches one at a time."
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