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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Serena, Clijsters set for huge semifinal clash

It's easy to feel good about Kim Clijsters' comeback to prominence. The 26-year-old has always been one of the friendliest players on tour, and it's difficult in the modern age not to pull for a new mom on one of sport's highest stages.

But even though her foe in the U.S. Open semifinals, Serena Williams, calls the Belgian and sometimes New Jersey resident a "good-hearted individual," she's not going to be pushing Clijsters' 18-month-old daughter, Jada, around in a stroller in Central Park on the morning of their Friday clash.

Serena has put on a happy face when discussing the Belgian's amazing comeback, but she had to sit through Clijsters' fourth-round takedown of her sister Venus. Serena has always been purposeful in getting a measure of revenge for her family.

"I'm a really good actress," she said when asked whether she's holding any grudges.

It's highly unlikely that Serena has any real hate in her heart for Clijsters, but she's quite determined to defend her U.S. Open crown and not have the bubbly blonde from Bree walk away with her crown.

She's all about winning, not just being a familiar foil in a soap opera loss. So don't expect her to jump up and down if Clijsters upsets her on Friday.

"I'm really excited to just have gotten this far, but I'm never the one to be happy to lose," Serena said. "I've had classic matches (where I lost) before, and I can't say that I'm excited about them. But hopefully I'll keep going forward."

Clijsters has played Williams tough in the past, but she owns a 1-7 record against her foe, registering her sole victory over Serena in the 2002 WTA Championships final. She's lost in many other places, including at the 1999 U.S. Open, at Indian Wells in 2001 (during their infamous final when the crowd taunted Williams) and at the 2003 Aussie Open, when Clijsters had Serena on the ropes and blew it.

It would take the Belgian almost three more years to win her first major at the 2005 U.S. Open, and in the time between she suffered a number of high-level losses, especially to her in-country rival Justine Henin. Clijsters' athleticism was never in question, nor was her stroke production for the most part, just her decision-making and her ability to step on the other elite players when the world's eyes were watching.

Back before she scored her only win over Serena in 2002, Clijsters was saying that the only way she could beat a Williams was on one of their off days, which is no way for a super-elite player to approach matches against the world's best. Mind you, Serena was on an incredible run then, having won the French, Wimbledon and U.S. titles that year. Still, Clijsters' defense was a near match for Serena's offense, and if the 19-year-old Belgian was able to mix it up enough and catch Serena a little tired, the opportunity was there for victory.

So on the day Clijsters upset her, she showed up aggressive, played more intelligently and stuck to her gameplan even when Serena let out one of her ear-piercing screams. Clijsters won 7-5, 6-3, stopping Serena's 18-match winning streak.

Today, Clijsters is a whole lot more mature and appears more self-aware. She's a better analyst of her own game and of her opponents. But she says much the same things about Serena's game that she did back then, in that there's no way she can steamroll the 11-time Grand Slam champion.

"I think she's always been able to step it up at the Grand Slams," Clijsters said. "Serena has that face where she's like, 'Okay, I'm here to do business.' But that doesn't mean that you don't get chances when you get to play her. So that's something that I'm going to be really focused on is (to) play aggressive tennis and try to dominate a lot of points. ... You really have to try to just step it up when you feel that things are really like twisting your way a little bit."

There are sure to be a couple of those curving moments in their match, but Clijsters has to make sure not to let Serena get on top of her early. Serena has a much better serve, returns more aggressively and is just as powerful and usually more consistent. Clijsters is faster and a better defensive player, but the way to get on top of Serena on hardcourts when she's motivated — and Williams is always motivated at the majors — is to yank her around from the backcourt and then go for winners. Just trying to out-steady her is not enough, nor is trying to simply overpower her. It has to be the right concoction. And while Clijsters' defense-to-offense skills have been on full display in her wins over Marion Bartoli, Venus and Li Na, she hasn't had to turn points around against the best player of her generation.

Clijsters recalled their first clash, back in 1999 in the third round of the U.S. Open, when she was just 16 and Serena only 17. It was Williams who would will her way to victory and go on to grab her first major title

"She was missing a few more shots," said Clijsters, who has lost all four of their three-set clashes. "I was bringing a lot of balls back and she was missing them. But then at 5-2 in the third set where I was up, she just, bang, started going for aces, started hitting winners. Like something switched in her head. That's something great players can do, and she definitely has it."

Serena will be the favorite in the pair's first match since 2003 in Miami, but there will be a bit of a wild card thrown into the contest: It's very possible that the well-liked Clijsters and her super-mom story will make her the crowd favorite, which will be a very unusual position for Serena to be in while playing at home.

Serena is sure to have her fans, but Americans love a comeback story and aren't as celebratory when it comes to pulling for dominant players.

In this instance, Clijsters has little to lose as long as she competes well, because it's only her third tournament back after more than two and a half years off. Serena has a lot more to lose, especially her U.S. Open title.

Whoever wins this match will be a substantial favorite in the final against either No. 9 Caroline Wozniacki, who stopped American Melanie Oudin's Cinderella run, or Belgian teen Yanina Wickmayer.

But the heat is on the world No. 2, even if she won't cop to it.

"I have no pressure on me," Serena said. "I don't put pressure on myself. Maybe the pressure is on her, but it's definitely not on me."

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