You hang around with a basketball player long enough and some of his skills are bound to rub off.
Kim Clijsters’ vertical jump was on display Sunday at the Home Depot Center. Her desperate leap at the back of the court to retrieve Daniela Hantuchova’s smash in the first set brought her up close and personal with some potted plants.
No harm, no foul -- and no poison ivy.
Her athletic move not only wowed the crowd, it seemed to unnerve ninth-seeded Hantuchova, who then missed an overhead wide. That point, in the third game, summed up the story of their final at the JPMorgan Chase Open, which the fifth-seeded Clijsters of Belgium won, 6-4, 6-1, in 67 minutes.
“Out in the jungle,” Clijsters said of her run-in with the plant. “I actually cut my leg. I saw it afterward. I was bleeding. I think it was [from] the basket.”
After winning the point, Clijsters said, “C’mon!” It wasn’t nearly as loud as her former boyfriend Lleyton Hewitt’s decibel-shattering cries, but enough of a tribute. Clijsters’ new boyfriend, Brian Lynch, a former Villanova basketball player, wasn’t on hand to witness her athletic move in winning her second title in the last three weeks and fifth of 2005.
The scramble in the third game was a snapshot of Hantuchova’s frustration. Over and over, Clijsters kept getting one more shot back, forcing Hantuchova to go for a little bit more each time.
“You work so hard to get that shot and you just move her all around and you just give it away like that and it kills me,” Hantuchova said. “That’s where I lost my head, because I missed those easy shots and I knew it was going to cost me the match....
“You have to hit 10 winners before you get a point.”
It may not surface right away but the strategy eventually takes a toll. Just knowing that Clijsters would keep defending and getting back the extra shot worked to unnerve Hantuchova a little more than two weeks ago in their quarterfinal at Palo Alto, which Clijsters won 6-3, 6-1. And Sunday was almost a carbon copy of that.
“The more you keep pushing them to go for more and the more they know they’re going to go for more risk and you get them out of their comfort zone,” Clijsters said.
The first set was littered with service breaks: Clijsters was broken twice and Hantuchova three times. The third time was in the 10th game of the first set, and Hantuchova played a particularly sloppy series of points.
Clijsters has played Hantuchova enough, winning all seven of their matches, to pick up physical cues. And it wouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist to detect Hantuchova’s negative body language. She went on to drop the first three games of the second set and appeared to mentally check out.
“That’s what I said yesterday, that’s what happened in Stanford,” Clijsters said. “The exact same thing. I really felt it there as well, if I got that first set, at the start of the second set, I really felt she was not on it as much.
“You see little details. The first game of the first set, you change ends, she drinks, she takes her time. Then in the second set, I win my game and she rushes to the other side. Those are little things you notice. Not being herself and not focusing too much.”
Clijsters and Hantuchova might be the same age, 22, but they are far apart in terms of experience. The Slovak has won only one title, in 2002, and was appearing in her fourth final. Clijsters has won 26 career titles, appeared in four Grand Slam finals, losing one to Jennifer Capriati and three to countrywoman Justine Henin-Hardenne.
She has been No. 1, having reached that ranking here at Carson when she won two years ago. The only thing missing on her resume is the elusive Grand Slam title.
Still, talk of Clijsters being a favorite at the U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 29, does not unnerve her.
“A lot of people try to push it off, but I think it’s a compliment,” she said.
“People look at you and say, ‘You’re a favorite to win the U.S. Open.’ And I say well, ‘Thank you.’ I know if I play good tennis, then I’m up there with a lot of the other girls.
“But I’m not the only favorite. There’s about six other girls that a lot of people will talk about during the Open.”