Mentally tough Clijsters wins Open title

Kim Clijsters showed Vera Zvonareva what it takes to win three U.S. Open titles in Saturday's win, Matt Cronin says.

It took Kim Clijsters five attempts to win her first Grand Slam title, but she's been pretty darn impressive in her last three major finals.

On Saturday, she destroyed Vera Zvonareva 6-2, 6-1 to win her third U.S. Open in a convincing victory that lasted just one hour.

The headstrong teenage version of Clijsters that fell to Jennifer Capriati in the 12-10 third set in the 2001 French Open final was a poor decision maker. The Belgian who was taken down by her intense in-country rival Justine Henin at the 2003 French Open, 2002 U.S. Open and 2004 Australian Open simply wasn't mentally tough enough.

But the Clijsters who won the 2005, 2009 and 2010 U.S. Opens is a smart, gutsy player who believes in herself and has a great sense of the big moments. The 27-year-old doesn't panic, understands how to weave her way through tough spots, and knows that the nerves will come and go.

“When you're younger the impact of the emotions is so big,” she said. "Some players are able to just block it off and just focus, but I wasn't. To be honest, when I think back now on my first Grand Slam final there's not a lot of things I remember, just because it was just so emotional at that stage of my life, not able to place those emotions. Now I'm able to do that a lot faster. I still get nervous and get that heavy arm, but I'm able to control it better and not let it affect me in a way that my body is going down where I'm not able to play the same type of tennis that I want to play.”

The reason why she was able to destroy Zvonareva was because she hit an extremely high level quickly in the match, largely because she knew that she was due to play her best after clawing past French Open finalist Sam Stosur and seven-time Grand Slam titlist Venus Williams in dramatic three setters earlier in the tournament. Those were matches that she could have easily lost, but she managed to maintain her focus when it appeared that her title defense was teetering on the brink.

“Stosur, Venus, and then today was gradually every match I felt better,” she said. “Even in long matches I felt I was hitting the ball well, I was seeing the ball better, I started serving better. That was just so comforting knowing that I was playing my best or better when I had to. Against Venus, I was able to raise my level in the third set. And then today just went on from that third set since last night. What I'm most happy with is that I was able to raise my level at the most important times in the tournament.”

Unlike Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva, who had heavy legs after her upset of Caroline Wozniacki in the semis, Clijsters simply flew. She looked nothing like the flustered woman who had fallen to Zvonareva at Wimbledon and Montreal earlier this summer, not allowing her to completely take control of the points or get into comfortable hitting zones.

She dismissed her serving woes and hit the corners of the box. She found amazing depth and angles off the ground and always seemed to be a step ahead of Zvonareva. Clijsters' inside-out forehand thumped away from the Russian, her cross-court backhand was just as sharp, and it seemed like every time Zvonareva would rush the net, Clijsters would dip a low passing shot at her toes.

There was little drama past 3-2 in the first set. Zvonareva committed two backhand errors to be broken to 4-2 and then Clijsters completely seized control of the match while Zvonareva went on a seven-game walkabout.

Clijsters broke to win the first set when Zvonareva dumped another backhand into the net, and in the first game of the second after Clijsters crushed a forehand that the Russian couldn't chase down, Zvonareva whacked her racket hard on the cement three times and broke it, receiving a warning.

“I was like, 'Come on!',” Zvonareva said. “'Why can't you just get the ball? It's just two steps away.' I was able to get this ball in previous matches, and right now I'm just like so slow, cannot move. I just need to get some energy. You just let the emotions out.”

Zvonareva would double fault away the next game to 3-0, and Clijsters eventually raced away, winning the match with a forehand cross-court winner. She trounced the Russian in just 59 minutes and scored the most lopsided victory in the U.S. Open final since Chris Evert destroyed Evonne Goolagong 6-3, 6-0 in 1976.

Clijsters became the first player to repeat as the U.S. Open titlist since Venus Williams in 2001 and became the first player since Evert to win three titles in three straight appearances (she missed 2006-2008 due to injury and her temporary retirement). She's now won just as many U.S. Open titles as the greatest player of her generation — top-ranked Serena Williams — and tied another one of her primary current rivals — Maria Sharapova — in total Slam crowns with three.

While Clijsters would love another U.S. Open title, her task is to raise a big trophy at another major. She says she doesn't reflect on her place in history yet, but while her U.S. Open runs are to be much admired, shutting the door on the rest of the field in Australia, France or Britain would add a lot of luster to her already impressive resume.

“They all motivate you in a different way,” she said. "The one where I've felt I can do better than I have is obviously at the Australian Open. Similar surface. You have the two European Grand Slams, obviously Wimbledon is the one where I'm close to because I have the connection with my dad (Lei, who passed away a few years ago) because he enjoyed it there. I always want to do well there. The French Open, feels like playing in Belgium because we have so many Belgian people supporting us. I will try everything that I can to be in the best shape possible to try and achieve what I've achieved here.”

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