Kim Clijsters started 2004 by losing the Australian Open final to her rival and fellow Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne. It was the fourth time Clijsters had reached the championship match at a Grand Slam tournament and failed to close the deal. Then, that March, Clijsters tore a tendon in her left wrist and watched helplessly as her ranking went into free fall. When surgery later in the season failed to correct the problem, doctors told her she might have played her last match. Soon afterward, in October, she called off her engagement to ATP pro Lleyton Hewitt. Other than that, Clijsters had a banner year.
When her wrist finally healed and she returned to the tour in February, Clijsters said she would "ease into things." That was unwittingly prophetic, since the thing she has done with the most ease is win matches. In three weeks of superior hard-court tennis, Clijsters won the prestigious Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and then blitzed through the draw of the NASDAQ-100 Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., without dropping a set. Her 14-match streak included wins over five of the top six players and whittled her ranking from No. 133 to No. 17. "I guess you can wake me up now," she said after last Saturday's NASDAQ final, a 6-3, 7-5 win over No. 3 Maria Sharapova. "I was ready to come back and be competitive, but I never expected this."
The return of Clijsters adds yet more depth to the women's game. While men's tennis has become a platform for the brilliance of Roger Federer, who beat Spain's Rafael Nadal in five sets in the NASDAQ men's final on Sunday, women's tennis has the opposite profile. Any of 10 players is capable of winning a major. And both within and without the Belgian Axis (Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne), the Russian Axis ( Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anastasia Myskina and Sharapova) and the Williams Axis ( Serena and Venus), there is a wealth of rivalries.
The knock on Clijsters has been that her sweet nature exacted a price on her tennis, a sport that all but requires streaks of self-absorption and nastiness. While Clijsters attended sponsor's functions, chatted up reporters and played with babies before her matches last week, she appears to have developed an edge. She declined to play on her country's Fed Cup team and snapped at a Belgian reporter who pressed her on the decision. As a friend of hers noted, "Someone who's passive doesn't call off a wedding." On the court she was uncharacteristically merciless, beating No. 2 Am�lie Mauresmo 6-1, 6-0 and toughing it out against Sharapova, the WTA's best fighter.
During last year's rehab-a-thon Clijsters had plenty of time to take stock of her life. She reached conclusions about her tennis that might seem contradictory--until you look at her results. "You realize that one injury can end your career tomorrow, so you should just enjoy playing," Clijsters says. "But you also realize that tennis is important to you, so you want to do everything possible to win." ?