Relatively Big Victory for Clijsters

Times Staff Writer

Too old. Too slow. Too scared.

Kim Clijsters was none of those things, of course, but it takes an extra something special to challenge, let alone beat the Williams sisters in a tournament. Maybe the final push had something to do with a little bit of acting against the aspiring actress, Serena Williams.

When Clijsters fell behind by a service break against Williams in the first set on Monday night, her face remained impassive, and just as importantly, there was no slumping of her shoulders.

"I said, 'Don't worry if she hits a few aces,' " Clijsters said. "You just don't show any emotions. That's where they can read how you're feeling and that's how they can push a little bit extra. That's what I did and it worked."

This resulted in the biggest victory of the 19-year-old Clijsters' career. The fifth-seeded Belgian won her first major title, defeating the No. 1-ranked and defending champion Serena Williams, 7-5, 6-3, in the final of the $3-million Home Depot WTA Championships at Staples Center before an announced 10,232.

Total announced attendance was 56,862 for the event, which struggled in its first year at this venue. Organizers are contemplating changes, perhaps a round-robin format, and the elimination of some day sessions.

The defeat, in 1 hour 25 minutes, stopped Williams' 18-match winning streak, as well as her effort to become the first female tennis player to earn $4 million in one season. The reigning French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion has lost five times in 2002, and once since the European clay-court season in May.

When Clijsters hit her final forehand winner to take the title, and $765,000 in prize money, she dropped her racket and covered her face. Then she uncorked an impressive throw, tossing a tennis ball into one of the upper decks. Clijsters also made sure to acknowledge a small group of Belgian supporters, speaking to them in Flemish.

The crowd applauded and she showed some humor, saying: "You don't have to clap. I know you don't understand."

It was the first time Clijsters has defeated Williams in six matches, though three of them have gone three sets. She beat Venus Williams in the semifinals here, advancing when Venus retired from the match because of a strained left calf after the first five games.

Clijsters practically had two walkovers, though not in the true sense, in back-to-back matches, because her countrywoman Justine Henin hardly put forth an effort in their quarterfinal match. She didn't lose a set in four matches and dropped only 14 games, which tied the record for fewest games lost on the way to the title.

Clijsters is the fourth player to defeat the sisters in the same event, joining Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (Sydney, 1998), Steffi Graf (Sydney, 1999) and Martina Hingis (Australian Open, 2001). She had a little help from Jennifer Capriati, who pushed Serena to the limit in their three-set semifinal on Sunday.

Though Williams started well, taking a 5-3 first-set lead, she slowly but surely wound down. The batteries were running low, and Williams flickered in and out, as her technique and footwork started to break down. Clijsters broke her serve five times in what was an often erratic final.

"I didn't think I was going to lose tonight, but I guess I did," said Serena, who had 44 unforced errors in her first loss since falling in the quarterfinals at Manhattan Beach to Chanda Rubin in August.

"I did kind of feel my time winding down in my legs and my arm and my back. I felt time running out, but other than that, I never give up until I shake hands and I realize it's over.... To be honest, right now I feel like I'm 98 years old. Everything right now is just broke and I'm ready to go home. I'm an old lady in a young woman's body."

Williams is all of 21. But Clijsters won the final four games of the first set and, sensing Williams was tiring quickly, kept the pressure on, chasing down shots, and even doing her trademark acrobatic splits to try to keep the points alive.

"She wasn't moving as well as in the beginning of the [second] set," Clijsters said. "I was getting a bit tired as well, so it was good she was getting a little bit tired."

Clijsters is charmingly honest. Someone asked her what she would have thought if someone told her she would win in straight sets.

"I wouldn't have believed it," Clijsters said.

Perhaps that's because she has come so close before against Serena. As a giddy 16-year-old, she had a 5-3 lead against Williams in the third set at the 1999 U.S. Open, running to her chair on changeovers, before losing, 7-5.

Then there was the controversial 2001 Indian Wells final, in which the crowd booed Williams during the entire match. Clijsters lost after winning the first set and leading in the second but handled the matter with class, earning the respect of the sisters.

Clijsters, who won three of her last four tournaments this year, was just as classy in victory. She hugged Williams and reveled in her breakthrough moment, showing she will be a serious threat to win a Grand Slam title next year. Her boyfriend, men's No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, told her to enjoy the moment when they spoke on the phone before the final.

"I couldn't believe she missed match point," Clijsters said. "I couldn't believe I won.

"Maybe at that time I had goose bumps all over my body. It was amazing. I hope a lot of players can have that when they win a big event. It's really something amazing."

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Box Score

Box score from the Kim Clijsters-Serena Williams final at the WTA Championships; Clijsters won the title, 7-5, 6-3:

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Williams Clijsters First serve % 62% 69% Aces 3 1 Double faults 3 7 Unforced errors 44 27 Pct. 1st serve pts 53% 59% Pct. 2nd serve pts 46% 61% Winners 19 6 Break points 3-10 5-10 Net points 7-14 3-4 Total points 67 80 Time of match 1 hour 25 minutes

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