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Monday, June 28, 2010
Clijsters handling pressure with aplomb

Brian Lynch doesn't profess to be a tennis expert. But as a former basketball pro in Europe, he's well versed in the art of competition. He also knows a thing or two about Kim Clijsters, since they've been married three years.

After watching his wife rally for a 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Justine Henin at Wimbledon in the 25th installment of the Belgians oft-heated rivalry, he said it was the kind of match Clijsters might have lost in her first stint on tour, pre-motherhood.

Clijsters is now 13-12 against Henin and will be the substantial favorite when she battles volatile Russian Vera Zvonareva in the quarterfinals Tuesday.

"The thing I was most proud of was the way she handled herself following the opening set," said Lynch, a former guard at Villanova. "Kim, before she retired, possibly would have let the match go. She really stayed with it."

Henin became the second comeback Belgian this year. Their previous two much-hyped encounters in Brisbane and Miami in 2010 were settled in third-set tiebreakers. And even though Clijsters prevailed, no one was underestimating Henin.

Clijsters had lost five straight to Henin in Grand Slams dating back to the 2002 Australian Open and was 0-3 in their three previous tussles on grass. A significant barrier was thus overcome.

"This will give Kim the belief that a Wimbledon title isn't a distant dream," said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill. "This was a major mental hurdle for her to climb over. There are still other big challengers that lie ahead in the draw, but to know her game held together and actually got better in the pressure moments will be the most pleasing aspect for Kim."

Brisbane and Miami, dramatic as they were, featured troughs as well as peaks. Monday's tilt on Court 1 was much the same. Clijsters looked completely at ease the first two points, then bizarrely crumbled. In the first set alone, the reigning U.S. Open champion committed 13 unforced errors, a high tally on grass.

Henin proved to be steady, flashing her all-court game and great defense. Who knows what would have happened had the seven-time winner of majors -- Wimbledon is the big one missing -- not fallen as she raced to the net early in the first? Henin injured her elbow, took an injury timeout and revealed postmatch that she was in pain. The serve and backhand particularly suffered.

Clijsters turned things around in the second set, reversing a deficit on serve in the opening game. Her deep groundstrokes pinned Henin to the baseline. In the final two sets, the result was 17 winners and 10 unforced errors. Clijsters was flawless at the net, following up those powerful groundstrokes to claim six of seven points in the final two frames.

"I was definitely going for the lines a lot better, keeping the pressure on her," Clijsters said. "Made a lot more first serves. That was a very important change in the match."

Clijsters' prematch temperament helped, too, Lynch said. The family, which includes lively 2-year-old daughter Jada, enjoyed a barbecue Sunday as the heat wave in London continued.

"She was pretty focused," said Lynch. "At the same time she was a bit looser than I expected."

Closer since returning to the circuit, Clijsters and Henin exchanged kisses on the cheek when it ended -- and truth be told, Henin had to be convinced. Maybe the injury had something to do with it.

Lynch returns to the players' box for more tennis Tuesday, somewhat begrudgingly.

"It's really difficult in the box to watch," Lynch said with a smile. "I barely have any nails left. There's no way to get rid of the stress, because it's a quiet sport. It's not like basketball. I can get out there and yell and stuff."