US Open 2005: Clijsters – slaying demons

Maria Sharapova has won a grand slam event but she has never beaten Kim Clijsters. Clijsters has never won a slam event but she’ll get her fifth opportunity to change that if she can beat Sharapova in their semifinal match.

Displaying a total lack of imagination, journalists always ask Clijsters if she is too nice to win the big one. This question implies that the women who have won majors are less than nice. There might be some truth to that. Mary Pierce took two back-to back five-minute timeouts, one for a back injury and one for a thigh strain, after losing the first set in her semifinal match with Elena Dementieva. Her legal, but ungracious, delaying tactic threw Dementieva off her game and played a big part in Pierce’s three set win. But, as Clijsters diplomatically pointed with much more patience than most people would show after being asked the same question ten million times, Roger Federer is a very nice guy and it hasn’t stopped him from winning a whole lot of grand slams.

Neither player looks like they want to win the match at the outset. The first four games are breaks of serve. Clijsters is known for dropping into an impressive but very uncomfortable looking split to get to wide balls. This balletic move only complements her quickness. Sharapova is having trouble keeping her ground strokes in the court and Clijsters’ speed only makes things worse as Sharapova goes for too much to keep the ball away from her.

Clijsters finally holds to go up 3-2 after Sharapova sets her up perfectly by running her right, left and right again to get an open court but hits the closer shot wide.

Sharapova has an additional problem. She strained a pectoral muscle this summer and it seems to be affecting her serve. She fails to hold serve in the first set, wins exactly zero points on her second serve then double faults on set point to go down, 2-6.

Nobody worries about Sharapova’s mental toughness. She’s a fierce competitor who’s managed to win a slam and a tour championship with a somewhat limited game. In the second set, she improves her serve and gets more of her shots in the court at the same time that Clijsters gets more tentative. Uh oh, is Clijsters folding again?

Clijsters regains her aggressiveness as the set goes on and gets three match points with Sharapova serving at 0-40, 5-6. Then comes the longest and best point of the match, a twenty-nine stroke battle that ends with a beautiful Sharapova combination: a moonball followed by a flat inside out forehand and then a drop shot. Sharapova saves the second match point with a moonball to one side and a hard shot to the other and Clijsters gives her the third with an error. Clijsters manages to get two more match points but she hits errors both times and the set goes to a tiebreaker.

Sharapova rides her momentum to a tiebreaker win by swinging for the lines and getting them. She wins the second set, 7-6(4), then goes off for a bathroom break leaving Clijsters with time to think about the five match points she just squandered. This is a career defining moment. Clijsters can come back and take the third set or she can cement her reputation as the sweet girl who can’t win the big one.

Clijsters can come back and take the third set or she can cement her reputation as the sweet girl who can’t win the big one.

Maybe Clijsters’ yearlong layoff for career threatening wrist surgery put tennis in perspective. Maybe the life-changing decision to call off her engagement with Lleyton Hewitt gave her a stronger sense of confidence. Maybe it was just her time. Whatever it was, Clijsters regains her momentum in the third set and Sharapova helps out by winning only one of her thirteen second serve points. Clijsters wins the match, 6-2, 6-7(4), 6-3, and storms into the final with Mary Pierce having removed a large monkey from her back.

The semifinal was the hard lifting for Clijsters. Pierce can’t hit the side of a barn and loses the first set after which she runs off to take a bathroom break. Enough already. Would Oscar De La Hoya leave the ring and take a bathroom break in a twelve round championship boxing match? Would Jeff Gordon stop his car on the track, jump out and get a chiropractic treatment in the middle of a NASCAR race?

The ploy doesn’t work and Clijsters slays any remaining demons to win her first grand slam, 6-3, 6-1, along with a cool 2.2 million dollars, the prize money for the Open plus a 100% bonus for winning the most points in the US Open Series.

This is the single biggest prize ever in women’s sports and it couldn’t happen to a nicer person.