A Sprint to Glory
by Pete Bodo
NEW YORK—Given how quickly and undramatically tonight's women's final at the U.S. Open slipped by (59 minutes), I feel almost obliged to write a post as brief, but I've already gone on too long. The most striking thing about Kim Clijsters' straight-set rout of Vera Zvonareva was the confidence and precision shown by Clijsters. This young woman once again morphed into the Beast of Queens, and this year the transformation was aided by the noticeable absence of the Queen of Beasts (I'm not naming names but you all know of whom I speak). If you can't put a damper on Clijsters' enthusiasm or handcuffs on her service return, the girl will hurt you.
Clijsters is in many ways the anti-Nadal. For if Nadal has operated out of a home base (Roland Garros) and gradually annexed two of the three other majors to his empire, Clijsters has been more inclined to launch a campaign, see it crumble, and flee back to the safety afforded her by the blue hard courts of the U.S. Open. Has any player in recent memory looked so good at one Grand Slam and so vulnerable at the other three?
What does that tell us about Clijsters? A couple of things, starting with the fact that she functions much better within her comfort zone. Tennis has numerous gifts for risk-takers; at about the same time Clijsters was warming up with Zvonareva, Novak Djokovic was telling us, with only a smidgen of hyperbole, that, "Tonight I kind of closed my eyes on the forehands in the match points and just went for the shots. I was lucky." But the Beast of Queens is cautious by nature. I think she might have accumulated a similar record at Roland Garros or the Australian Open, and struggled here, had she not happened to win here first. Now she owns three U.S. Open titles, and a 21-match winning streak at the Grand Slam where general fatigue and niggling injuries shadow almost every contender in the field.
The feat is almost freakish.
This court undoubtedly helps Clijsters, but not excessively or even in an easily explained way. If you look at her record, she was a Roland Garros finalist twice before she played—and lost—her first final in New York in 2003, the straight sets victim of her countryman Justine Henin. She hasn't lost a match in New York since then, although that long break she took caused her to miss the U.S. Open for three years, ending in 2009.
Frankly, I was disappointed by the lack of resistance from Zvonareva, and not just because I picked her to win. After all, Vera had taken the measure of Kim in their last two meetings, and she had demonstrated good composure in her first Wimbledon final back in July. With all the pressure squarely on Clijsters this time—last year, she was in the early stages of her comeback, and nothing overwhelming was expected of her—she easily might have crumbled, as she had against Nadia Petrova in Melbourne, and later at the hands of Zvonareva on grass. Instead, Clijsters played her most persuasive U.S. Open final yet.
"I don't think I was overwhelmed," Zvonareva said in her concession presser. "Although it was a great honor to play here before this crowd. Physically, Kim was a much better player than me. I was not capable of playing at the same physical level as in my other matches. Maybe I still have to learn to pace myself, practicing and playing. . . It was very difficult for me physically out there today."
Strange. But that's the main theme in this entire narrative. Let's face it—Clijsters has won three in a row here, and most of us would take that kind of strange any day.