Stunning turn of events for Kim Clijsters
PARIS -- No. 2 seed Kim Clijsters, admittedly, had been scuffling. But here, surely, was a sign that she was about to reverse the incoming tide of a buoyant 20-year-old from the Netherlands.
A classic Clijsters topspin forehand hit just below the tape, determinedly climbed up and to the left, glancing off the support pole, blooping over the net and, incredibly, dropped in for a winner. She held up her hand, in the traditional gesture of sportsmanship, but in retrospect it may have been an acknowledgement of surrender.
In a stunning turn of events, the holder of the past two Grand Slam singles titles lost agonizingly -- gruesomely, really -- to Arantxa Rus 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 in the second round. Clijsters led 5-2 in the second set and held two match points before losing 11 of the last 12 games.
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Rus, for the record, is ranked No. 114 in the world. Previously, Clijsters was 31-0 in Grand Slam matches against players ranked outside the top 100. Now she's 31-1.
Ordinarily, unforced errors are a subjective and overrated statistic. But on Thursday, they told the entire story. Clijsters was credited with a staggering 65.
To be fair, Clijsters has spent the past month nursing an ankle injury, sustained while dancing at a wedding celebration. But given her history -- she won the 2009 U.S. Open after coming out of retirement with very little preparation -- this was a jaw-dropper.
And so, an already open women's draw is now open a little wider.
"I guess I'm still trying to figure it out," Clijsters said in her postmatch news conference. "You know, I felt kind of in control. I started doubting a little bit. I think that's on clay something for me [that] is definitely the wrong attitude to have."
Take nothing away from Rus. She was steadier, by far, than the four-time major champion as the match escalated.
"I think when I was 5-2 down in the second set, I was thinking, 'Just go for it and play more aggressive.' And, yeah, that really helped," Rus said. "At 6-5 I had a really good serve game, and then I won the set. Then I was thinking, 'Yeah, I can win this match.'"
Who, exactly, is Rus?
She won the 2008 Australian Open junior title but has struggled at the highest level of tennis. After qualifying into the main draw at this year's Australian Open, she beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the first round but fell to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second. Heading into the French Open, she had lost all five of her WTA-level matches. Still, she took a set from Maria Sharapova in Madrid and beat New Zealand qualifier Marina Erakovic in the first round here.
Rus is listed at 5-foot-11, 143 pounds, which gives her a spidery presence on the court. Somehow, she generates some serious racket seed, which give her shots depth and heft.
The ankle, Clijsters insisted, was not the issue.
"I'm happy that I gave myself the opportunity [to play]," she said. "I mean, it's better to try than not to try. That's my attitude.
"So I definitely don't regret it. I wouldn't have come here if I didn't think that I would be able to play on a high level."
When Clijsters was growing up in the mid-1980s, she received a Fila outfit for Christmas, the same style worn by one of her heroines, Monica Seles. As part of the Italian clothing manufacturer's 100th anniversary, Clijsters is wearing some of her favorite retro outfits. This one featured a matching jacket, shirt and visor set with a distinctive splatter design that was dominated by a rather, uh, vibrant fuchsia.
As the match wound down, a Belgian journalist was asked which was uglier, Clijsters' outfit or her game? He did not hesitate.
"Her game," he said.
This is an awkward time for Clijsters.
She stepped away from the game for more than two years to have her first child, Jada Ellie, and returned in the summer of 2009. After a decade on the WTA circuit, she won only a single Grand Slam singles title. And then she added another in about a month.
Clijsters, taking advantage of the absence of injured Serena Williams, followed up with a repeat victory at last year's U.S. Open and again at this year's Australian Open. Even before the ankle injury, she had stressed her shoulder and wrist and was planning to take some time off. After a month, those injuries apparently healed and only her ankle was balky.
Perhaps because she hadn't played at the French Open in five years, or maybe because she still hasn't announced whether she will play into next season (she says she wants to have another child), Clijsters made the decision to play in Paris.
Considering that clay is her least-favorite surface and the horrific result, it looks like a bad one.
Burdened by a heavily taped ankle, Clijsters was never quite herself. She won her first-round match against Anastasia Yakimova in straight sets, but her serve -- particularly the second in which she lost 17 of 19 points -- was suspect. She had 10 double faults and her serve was broken seven times.
Not long after the loss, Clijsters didn't look too disappointed. She was eating lunch with Jada in the players' restaurant. The girl climbed onto her mother's shoulder. Later, Jada played a game of fetch with her father, Brian. The 3-year-old with blonde curls played the role of the dog, retrieving a tennis ball with her teeth.
Tennis is fleeting. Family life beckons.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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