Clijsters solves puzzle in time for Davenport

As the number of winners inexorably decreases at the halfway stage of The Championships, few competitors are smiling more broadly than Belgium's Kim Clijsters. Seriously worried at one stage last year about whether wrist and knee injuries would end her career, she reached a point in beating the American Marissa Irvin last Wednesday at which "for the first time, the puzzle sort of fitted".

In beating Irvin and, before her, Britain's Katie O'Brien, Clijsters dropped only seven games in four sets, so a tougher workout yesterday against Roberta Vinci, of Italy, was not unwelcome preparation for the real test - a fourth-round meeting with Lindsay Davenport.

Vinci, a gutsy serve-volleyer, was beaten 6-3 6-4 so Clijsters has dropped her serve but not a set in seven matches while returning to grass by winning the Hastings Direct International Championship at Eastbourne the week before last. She had characterised Vinci as a girl who mixed her game up, being fond of the drop shot and coming to the net a lot.

That proved to be the case and having her serve broken in the very first game after the Italian played a delicious backhand past her emphasised that this would be a step up from the week's two previous matches. But Clijsters improved from an uncertain start and was looking good well before the end of the first set, which was concluded in under half an hour.

An early break in the second relieved any pressure and though Vinci - Italian for "you win" - took the fifth game to love, then saved three break points in the seventh, too many unforced errors undid her, the end coming with a deft backhand chip.

Clijsters has never won a Grand Slam singles event, losing finals to her compatriot and great rival Justine Henin-Hardenne at the Australian, French and US Opens. This year, following the unexpectedly early departure of her Belgian nemesis, the route is blocked by the forbidding figure of Davenport in what could be an epic third meeting of the year between two of the best servers in the women's game.

At Indian Wells in March, Clijsters won the final in three sets, gleaning sufficient confidence from her comeback to go on and win a fortnight later in Miami, which made her the first unseeded player to win two successive Tier I titles - Maria Sharapova becoming her victim in the final there.

Davenport had her revenge in the French Open, where defeat after leading 6-1, 3-1 hit Clijsters hard. "I really felt there was a lot of work to do. I couldn't find my strokes and my game was nowhere," she said after capitulating. "I didn't really enjoy playing on clay this year with my wrist and knee and everything, so I was very happy to get away from clay."

From Paris, then, to the less manic climes of Eastbourne and the feel of grass underfoot again. The change certainly suited her, as did some extra, early practice in a pleasantly relaxed environment: "It's always good to go to places where you feel good. Mentally it got me back on track, and if you have positive thoughts, it makes things a lot easier. I needed to be relaxed and have a little fun too, and then I played better tennis."

Resigned to spending more time in the gym, doing exercises for the rest of her career on her knee and wrist, she knows that discipline will do no harm. "There's days when it feels a little bit tight, especially when it gets colder," she said of the left wrist, which can no longer deliver quite such a formidable double-handed backhand. But after the heat of Eastbourne, and Wimbledon's mini-heatwave, yesterday's cooler weather seemed to have no adverse effect. "I've been working really hard. I've been really focused on everything that I've had to do. Maybe in the past with exercises, I would sometimes say 'let's not do them today'. Now I know I have to do them if I want to be able to play tennis at the level I want to be. For a few weeks it was frustrating because I was doing everything right off court but it was still not coming together on the court."

She is an amiable talker until the name of Lleyton Hewitt, her former paramour crops up: "You know, I don't think that's anything to talk about now. I'm here to talk about today's match. If you have any other questions, you can go and ask those to somebody else." Ouch.

The Davenport match then? "I'm definitely looking forward to it, after Paris, which motivates me. Lindsay's a great grass-court player because she hits the ball so precisely. Playing her so often [16 times before], I know her strengths and weaknesses but I'll have to play really well to beat her."

The winner should go far; quite possibly all the way to Saturday's final.

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