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Playing through pain

It hasn't been nearly as easy as it looks for Clijsters

Posted: Wednesday January 25, 2006 11:49AM; Updated: Wednesday January 25, 2006 12:08PM
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Kim Clijsters is peaking at 22, but she has said she will retire by 2007.
Kim Clijsters is peaking at 22, but she has said she will retire by 2007.
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- Less then two weeks ago, Kim Clijsters limped off the court during her quarterfinal match in Sydney with tears in her eyes, unable to walk normally because of a hip injury she incurred while warming up.

She was noticeably slower in her first three matches here at the Australian Open, too. Her usual powerful movement was replaced with cautious, calculated steps and she was forced to shelve her trademark sliding.

But during her fourth-round encounter with Sydney finalist Francesca Schiavone, Clijsters' mobility and play started to improve. She showed signs of regaining the strength and confidence that will enable her to contend for this championship.

On Wednesday, Clijsters battled the Comeback Queen, Martina Hingis. After dominating play early, she held Hingis off in a close three-set victory. Hingis has been generating most of the headlines during this fortnight, and deservedly so -- she is a great champion and her dedication to finding her former brilliance is admirable.

Hingis proved a lot of people wrong (me included) in competing so evenly with a player of Clijsters' power so early in her comeback. Hingis has demonstrated that great champions possess the rare ability to figure out how to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, rising to the level of the competition. She will continue to improve and challenge for titles throughout the year.

Clijsters, however, has been battling a different opponent the past few weeks: her body. First her hip went out, and as she tried to compensate, she tweaked her back. Knowing Kim from the tour, and having dealt with many injuries of my own throughout my career, I had tremendous sympathy for her. Trying to will your body to do things it isn't capable of is not a fun or fair situation to be in -- especially during a Grand Slam.

Kim plays a very physical game, and her main assets are her strength, mobility and athleticism. Last year, she made a remarkable comeback from wrist surgery and had the best year of her career, finally breaking through and winning her first major title, the U.S. Open.

She is also one of the friendliest players on the tour, always quick with a hello, and the first player you'll catch playing with whatever player's or official's children are in the players' lounge. Kim has been very open about her desire to pursue a normal family life after tennis and has said she will only play another two years of professional tennis at the most.

While we were sitting around in the lounge in Sydney, she was very rational, if not matter of fact, when discussing her injury and the inevitability of her shortened career. "See, this is why I will have to stop playing," she said. "My body breaks down, and if I can't play the way I want, then I would rather not play."

She wasn't bitter or irrational, as most players would be with the possibility of having their career halted at its peak. Clijsters is the rare elite athlete who knows there is more to life than sporting glory, but still honors her talent by striving for excellence in every way possible.

With my friend and previous pick Lindsay Davenport out of the tournament, I hope Kim can complete this incredible display of determination and win her second Grand Slam title. But even if she doesn't, I'll still be impressed with the effort she put into just being out there.

Tie-breakers

As a tribute to one of my favorite features of Sports Illustrated, I wanted to write my version of "This week's sign of the apocalypse." After Tommy Haas' fourth-round round loss to Roger Federer, Haas took umbrage with four-time Grand Slam champion-turned-commentator Jim Courier's complimentary analysis of Federer's play and skill level.

"If you ask Jim Courier, he has his tongue up [Federer's] a--," Haas said. "Sometimes it makes me sick almost. Maybe in six years he and everyone will be right, and [Federer] will have 15 Grand Slams [one more then career leader Pete Sampras], but he still has things to do in my mind to be considered the best ever."

Beyond Haas' audacity at not being all that impressed, I find Courier to be exactly the kind of person whose opinion I respect and want to listen to. He is a Hall of Fame player, won four Slams, was the No. 1 player in the world and was a Davis Cup stalwart. Beyond all of that, he is widely respected as one of the hardest-working players in tennis history and was lauded for maximizing every ounce of his potential.

Jim, please keep telling us what you think. The tennis world and Gimel's Blog love hearing your thoughts on a sport in which you reached the highest level.

Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is participating in this year's Australian Open and is a frequent contributor to SI.com.

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