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Clijsters, Hewitt want to put breakup behind them

3/13/2005

Two years ago at Indian Wells, when they were tennis's first couple, Lleyton Hewitt and Kim Clijsters became the first pair to win singles titles on the same day in the same location.

Not since 1974, when Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert won the Wimbledon titles, had a couple triumphed at a major tournament, except Connors and Evert won on separate days. (Husband and wife Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf started dating just after they won the 1999 French Open crowns).

Maybe it was a clear sign that Clijsters and Hewitt's relationship wouldn't last that after they combined to win $732,000, neither knew what they were going to do to celebrate. It didn't sound like a candlelight dinner was in the mix.

"I haven't thought about it," Hewitt said. "Golf might be on the agenda."

Perhaps Clijsters became tired of following the course set by Hewitt and his intense family and entourage for the past five years. Or maybe she spent most of last year injured and off the court with the time to find herself. Whatever the case, 21-year-old Clijsters ended their relationship in October.

Hewitt is now engaged to Australian soap opera actress Bec Cartwright, while Clijsters, although dating, is keeping her options open. She says she's happy, he says he's happy and they say they have put their troubles behind them.

"I'm very happy," Clijsters said Wednesday. "It's the past. I've learned so much out of those five years, and it's an experience that everyone should have. I made the right decision. I believe that if you stay positive, everything will turn out positive for both sides. That's the most important thing at the end of the day – that you're both happy. I think that will happen for both of us."

Hewitt obviously was not happy when told just a few weeks after they had set a February wedding date that his bride-to-be was no longer interested in walking down the aisle. But in vintage Hewitt fashion, he stuck his chin up, puffed his chest out and fought like hell to bury his pain. He took the "loss" and forged ahead, looking for his next victory and a foe who he could wear down.

"You learn a lot about self in different situations," he said Thursday. "The end of last year was a tough situation mentally. That's why I hold my performance at the Tennis Masters Cup in such high regard [runner-up to Roger Federer], because I was as mentally tough as I've ever been. I came through a lot off court and played some of my best tennis ever. Everyone was out to write me off at the end of last year and coming into the Aussie Open, but obviously it didn't affect me."

That's a very Hewitt-like take, one where everything in life is put in a tennis perspective. Lose a fiancé, beat the stuffing out of Andy Roddick in the Tennis Masters semis. Prove yourself on court, and off-court life will take care of itself.

Just a couple of weeks after drubbing Roddick, Hewitt reacquainted himself with Cartwright, whom he met five years ago at a charity function. Six weeks later, on the day after his remarkable run in the Australian Open ended in a heartbreaking loss to Marat Safin, he chose to heal by proposing to a girl who knows nothing about tennis.

"It's great," he said. "I'm very happy how everything has panned out. It's been fantastic with Bec the last few months. I feel very relaxed on and off the court. I can't complain with my situation."

Hewitt says it's cool he can go back to the hotel after a match now and not talk about tennis. He hasn't seen his fiancé's TV show, "Home and Away," in seven years, but there's plenty of time to catch up on it with the series DVD. (Interestingly, Agassi also once wed an actress, Brooke Shields. After the two split, Agassi later decided he'd be better off with someone who better understood his career – 22-time Grand Slam champion Graf).

Clijsters also seems pleased her life is no longer all tennis, all the time. During her time off, she got reacquainted with her home nation of Belgium, made new friends and developed a slew of new interests. Clijsters had been traveling non-stop for the past six years, and when your life consists of planes, training rooms and matches, there's not much time to develop interests in organic produce, one of her new passions. Now she has a slew of business ideas dancing around her head, such as opening up an all-inclusive health and fitness club.

"You start thinking: What am I going to do next? What am I interested in? You don't accept that," she said. "You don't want to think like that. I had a lot of ideas and I was thinking of creating options for myself."

Up until Wednesday night, Clijsters had refused to talk about the breakup to the press, mostly furious at her national media for digging into her personal life after the split.

"It didn't bother me, but when it involved my sister and my family and friends, it did," Clijsters said. "Some were saying I was dating other
guys, which wasn't true, and I said this is too much."

She also knew Indian Wells would be the first time she would run into Hewitt after the breakup, and it might be more uncomfortable if she went public with her feelings. Yet, she acknowledged that if she said nothing, speculation would continue. So she spoke about it a little bit because she's determined to put that stage of her life behind her.

The pair likely also have put behind them the first awkward meeting, as they should have passed each other in the player's lounge. It couldn't have been completely comfortable. Like Connors and Evert before them – who prematurely ended their engagement and are both happily married to other people – they feel like they can deal with it. Take it from Hewitt – former No. 1 players know how to keep their minds focused on the playing fields.

"It's something you going to go through" Hewitt said. "It's going to be different than seeing any other player, but we both have big careers to look forward to and have big goals. There's no bad blood or bad feelings. We'll just prepare for our matches the way we normally do."

Matthew Cronin, the managing editor of Inside Tennis magazine, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.