Thursday September 2nd, 2010

If the tour's young players have difficulty relating to the Williams sisters, so adept at balancing tennis against off-court pursuits, imagine their take on Kim Clijsters. In a tournament fraught with peril -- the upsets, the heat, the humidity -- Clijsters moves quietly and comfortably in a world entirely her own.

She showed up at the U.S. Open with defending-champion status and a hip injury, but revealed few hints of either. Her No. 1 priority was getting her 2 ½-year-old daughter, Jada, properly settled for the two-week grind. She conducted long, thoughtful interviews with ESPN and the Tennis Channel. She crossed the subway tracks to Citi Field, donned a Mets jersey and threw out the first pitch.

Oh, and she might be the best player in the field. There hasn't been one sign to the contrary over her first two matches.

The more you think about Clijsters' balancing act, and the mood of utter calm surrounding it, the more remarkable it becomes. She has always been a player taken largely for granted, especially when compared to the turbulent career of her Belgian countrywoman, Justine Henin, but full acknowledgement will come if she wins this tournament for the third time. Even with Henin and Serena Williams among the missing, it is proving to be a severe test of the players' physical and mental capacity.

Through the measured tone of her comments -- spoken in perfect English, her second language -- Clijsters is internally driven, with much to prove to herself. She took everyone by surprise when she won the 2005 Open (her first major title), and when it came to finishing off Serena in last year's semifinals, the pressure was off once Serena staged her lamentable meltdown.

Is pressure still a factor? Some would make that claim. In the wake of a thrilling victory over Henin at the Brisbane tournament in January, Clijsters took what she called a "horrible" 6-0, 6-1 loss to Nadia Petrova at the Australian Open. After she missed the French Open due to injury, she went to Wimbledon and lost a three-setter to Vera Zvonareva, saying she's "never been more disappointed after a loss."

Sometimes, it seems, Clijsters' game just vanishes. That's always a monumental stroke of fortune for her opponent, for an in-form Clijsters might be the best pure ball-striker on tour, and she hasn't lost a trace of her quickness. With so many players showing hints of vulnerability, Clijsters stands as the tournament favorite if that dodgy hip doesn't come back into play.

It's a time for everyone to stop and consider: Clijsters is enviably blissful as a wife and mother, announcing her hopes to have a second child, yet she's in position to be the player at America's prime-time event. As viewed by the competition, she clearly comes from some other planet.

What a contrast at Ashe Stadium Wednesday night: Janko Tipsarevic, a curiously endearing villain with his brooding countenance and his maroon-and-black threads, against Andy Roddick, the U.S. No. 1 storming around in fits of petulance over a foot-fault call. Roddick was outplayed and outclassed, no question, and that was evident from the second set on. But there was no reason to continue making wisecracks to the lineswoman and chair umpire over an episode he needed to forget. Roddick wound up tossing his spare rackets into the crowd, in a very unfriendly manner, and now he faces a long wait until the Australian Open comes around. He will find the usual suspects there -- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, so many more -- but it has reached the point where virtually any player in the Top 100 can take him down . . . The new (yet old) darling of American tennis, Mardy Fish, to Tennis.com: "I feel like a completely different person. A lot of it has to do with just walking around the locker room, feeling confident. I want to set a precedent to the guys that I can play in the hottest stuff. I want to put some sort of myth out there." . . . Sorry to see a second-round exit for Sania Mirza, who has done so much for international tennis and the way women athletes are perceived in her native India, but she got the job done in the first round. She dispatched Michelle Larcher de Brito, the most godawful shrieker of them all, and for that, we can all be grateful.

If you have access to both ESPN and the Tennis Channel, it's best to watch both broadcasts (some of it on tape, obviously) if you have the time. ESPN comes strong with Mary Carillo, John McEnroe, Chris Fowler and Brad Gilbert, and as much as we all miss to McEnroe-Ted Robinson pairing, it was interesting to hear John call the Roddick-Tipsarevic match with his brother, Patrick. They've been at odds lately -- McEnroe's new academy will be in direct competition with the USTA's development program, of which Patrick is in charge -- but they worked well together . . . Robinson is a mainstay of Tennis Channel's coverage, along with Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors, and Justin Gimelstob's comeback, if you can call it that, seems complete. A lot of people had written off Gimelstob two years ago, after his profane and sexist remarks about Anna Kournikova and women players in general, but he's an undeniably engaging, likeable presence as he prowls the grounds for interviews. Gimelstob is a familiar face to players, who remember him from his days on tour, and he tends to get more interesting comments than what journalists hear in the interview room. Example, from Andre Agassi on Wednesday: "If you gave me somebody's game, to go out and win this tournament, I gotta be honest -- I would take Murray's." . . . If anyone was worried about Navratilova, who underwent radiation treatment for breast cancer in March and April, she looks absolutely terrific. Love those little winks to the camera . . . Lower grades on the broadcasting end: For ESPN, Cliff Drysdale's play-by-play. He's a spectacularly warm and friendly man, and quite knowledgeable, but a bit droll at a time when networks hope to raise interest in the game. On the TC side: The nightly one-hour highlights show, produced on a stale-looking set in Los Angeles, with chipper host Kevin Frazier a bit too enthusiastic . . . It could only be Federer: He pulls off a stunning cross-court winner with that between-the-legs rocket against Brian Dabol, from some 25 feet behind the basline, and it launches a debate over the greatest such shot he's ever hit.

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