NEW YORK // Kim Clijsters considers herself a mother first, a tennis player second. Yes, the Belgian is the defending champion and seeded No 2 at the US Open, making her a popular pick to win the year's last grand slam tournament, which begins today. And, yes, she considers herself obligated to help promote her sport by offering to do things such as throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a Major League Baseball game, which was on her schedule on Friday when the New York Mets played host to the Houston Astros.
None of that, though, is as important to Clijsters as her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Jada. "It's about balancing; just listening to yourself. I have days when I want to spend time with Jada, and I don't want to go to practice, and I want to make sure I'm there for her," Clijsters said. "And, luckily, I'm not the type of athlete who, if I don't do it, I'm going to be panicking." Clijsters, 27, said many players feel compelled to adhere strictly to whatever workout or practice routines are established for them by a coach or trainer.
She, on the other hand, is OK with taking an afternoon off, if that's what she thinks she needs to do. "I'm like, if I don't do it today, it's not like my game won't be the same tomorrow," she said, gesturing with her left arm, the one that bears a tattoo of Jada's name on the wrist. "In that way, I'm probably more easygoing. I live in the moment and see how I feel." With a racket in her hand, Clijsters is at her best on hard courts. All three of her tournament titles in 2010 came on that surface, including at a US Open warm-up event at Cincinnati this month.
"I've always felt more comfortable on this surface, not just this year, but even when I was 14, 15, 16 - when I started playing my first few summer series in America," she said. "I don't know what it is, but I feel like I can move better, and I can see the ball better. Everything comes easier." She owns a 14-match winning streak at the US Open, taking the title the last two times she entered, in 2005 and 2009. Clijsters missed the tournament in 2006 because of a wrist injury, then was away from the tour for about two-and-a-half years while she got married and had a baby.
In one breath, she says she does not think about numbers like that 14-0 record. Yet in the next, she says she knows that if she plays well, she "can beat anybody out there". Clijsters was treated for a cramp near her left hip during her most recent match, a three-set loss to Vera Zvonareva, the Wimbledon runner-up, in the quarter-finals at Montreal a week ago. But Clijsters says she is healthy, thanks in part to acupuncture.
If she is able to move at her best, Clijsters will be expected to go far the next two weeks, especially against a field missing Serena Williams, the three-time US Open champion and Justine Henin, a two-time winner, both sidelined by injuries. "Because Serena's gone, and Henin's out, the women's side is open for the taking," said John McEnroe, who won seven Grand Slam titles and is now a television analyst. "Kim has positioned herself well in terms of what she needs to do to defend her title."
Given that Clijsters already stepped away from the game once, it is not clear, even to her, how much longer she may be trying to defend titles. She said she hopes to play until the 2012 London Olympics, where the tennis competition will be held at the All England Club. "I've never played in the Olympics, and that's something I would like to try. But then, on the other hand, we would also like to have more children," Clijsters said. "So, I'm kind of like, 'We'll see'." * Associated Press
Surface: Hard courts. Site: Billie Jean King National Tennis Stadium in New York. Schedule: Today to September 12. Top seeds: Men, Rafael Nadal of Spain; Women, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark. 2009 singles winners: Men, Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina (out with wrist injury); Women, Kim Clijsters of Belgium. Prize money: $22.7 million, with $1.7 million each to the men's and women's singles champions.