Venus must bring the heat versus Clijsters

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- After Venus Williams hammered Marion Bartoli out of the Sony Ericsson Open semifinals, she told the media: "I just like to think of myself as a big-point player. So when the stakes get a little higher, it feels good to be able to pull out a little something extra."

We'll probably get a chance to see just how well that self-evaluation measures up Saturday, when she faces Kim Clijsters in the singles final of the SEO. She'll probably need to pull out the stops (never mind that "something a little extra" stuff) if Clijsters gets a well-earned emotional lift after choking away a huge semifinal lead over Justine Henin, her Belgian frenemy, only to win it 7-6 in the third.

In her first three matches, Clijsters lost a grand total of seven games, and that included her win over defending champ Victoria Azarenka. She hadn't lost a set until her match with Henin, which she led 6-2, 3-0 before she got the yips. But chances are she's purged her system of anxiety, at least until she faces Henin again.

If Clijsters hopes to win the final, she can't afford the kind of terrible lapse she suffered against Henin, nor can she drink up the atmosphere, for the stadium is apt to be packed with overflowing Williams fans (this is, after all, south Florida). She has to take the ball early and force the action, moving forward. Williams' backhand often looked suspect in her win against Bartoli, and though she has quick-strike capability, she doesn't have rallying stamina.

Williams is riding an 18-1 streak for the year, with two titles (to Clijsters one). But her toughest final was in Dubai, where she snatched the title from Azarenka (who got all of four games off Clijsters). But let's remember that Williams had a pretty good Australian Open, losing to Na Li 7-5 in the third set in the quarterfinals; it's not like she hasn't faced the kind of big-match atmosphere that will greet her Saturday.

Williams will have to make good use of her best weapon, the serve. Clijsters is one of the few players who's physically strong and athletic enough to dictate the pace and tone of play, but Williams can keep her back on her heels with that stinging first serve, as well as her second-ball slice.

Williams can't afford to get into lengthy rallies, no matter how fast the pace. As swift and strong as she is, she can't match Clijsters' consistency. The key to this match probably will be the respective serves of the finalists. Clijsters' serve can fluctuate between vulnerable and downright shaky, so Williams has to focus on attacking it. That she isn't afraid to take a big cut on the return is an asset.

And if Williams doesn't bring the heat or action with her serve, Clijsters will be free to control the rallies and that's something Williams can't allow -- not with the frame of mind Clijsters is apt to be in after surviving yet another barnburner with Henin.