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New York -- Watching Kim Clijsters during her remorseless dismantling of Vera Zvonareva in the U.S. Open women's final Saturday, it was amusing to think that not so long ago, Clijsters always heard she was too "nice" to win Grand Slams. Serena Williams snarls and shrieks her way through championship matches. Justine Henin, Clijsters' bantamweight Belgian countrywoman, is as mean as a mongoose once you throw her on a tennis court.
For a long time, Clijsters was the perennial runner-up at majors, the classic gracious loser who seemed to befriend everyone on tour.
|Kim Clijsters is a nice girl, make no mistake, but she is not looking to be your friend on the court.|
But Clijsters is changing that, one U.S. Open at a time. After becoming the first woman in 10 years to defend her title in New York, Clijsters actually volunteered Saturday how nice it was to also get "a little bit of revenge" against Zvonareva for the way Zvonareva upset her in three sets in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon this summer.
Clijsters? Seeking revenge?
"A little bit" doesn't accurately describe how badly Clijsters trounced Zvonareva. Clijsters took the seventh-seeded Russian apart in just 59 minutes, never letting her breathe, never once taking her foot off the gas, just mercilessly running her all over the court and pounding one powerful groundstroke after another at her until she'd routed her, 6-2, 6-1.
The one time Zvonareva did stir -- finally pushing Clijsters to a break point at 3-1 of the second set -- Clijsters immediately slapped her down with an ace and won the game. As Clijsters explained later in her postmatch news conference, "That was a very important game for me to win, because, yeah, I just didn't give her that small chance to get back into the match."
"You're a very caring person," a reporter told Clijsters. "How hard is that to do?"
"On the court it's not hard," Clijsters shot back.
For Clijsters, the win was her third career Grand Slam title overall, and all of them have come at the U.S. Open. She also won the 2005 crown before missing the '06 tournament with injuries, then skipping the Open the next two years to get married and have a baby, Jada, who is now 2½ years old.
Rather than dull her skills, Clijsters has come back a better player. Even more than her rout of Zvonareva, Clijsters' three-set thriller over Venus Williams in Friday's semifinal revealed more about why Clijsters has been able to bridge the gap from being a four-time Grand Slam runner-up to Grand Slam winner -- that final step that Zvonareva, who also made but lost badly in the Wimbledon final, is still trying to close.
Clijsters has always been able to trade booming groundstrokes with Williams. Clijsters is such a good athlete she can flip from defense to offense within a point more effectively than anyone in the women's game right now, except Serena. But with Friday's match in the balance, it was Venus -- who had barely played this summer because of a kneecap injury -- who cracked first for a change. Not Clijsters.
Williams double faulted twice in the their second-set tiebreaker to help Clijsters push the match to a third set. By then, Clijsters was flicking Williams' 120-plus mph serves back at her, and ripping passing shots by her at the net.
For a moment it looked as though the old Clijsters might make a comeback when she took the net but blasted a volley 10 feet long to help Williams break her for the final-set lead. But no. Clijsters just angrily slapped away the extra ball she had in her hand, hunkered down for the next game, and broke Williams right back -- then went on to carve out the win by coolly parachuting a couple lobs in just inside the baseline, and pouncing on some weak, high-bouncing shots Venus slapped back at her, and ripping winners.
The way Clijsters closed out the last two games was downright ferocious -- another word not usually associated with her.
"To be honest, when I think back now on my first Grand Slam final," Clijsters said, "there's not a lot of things I remember just because it was just so emotional. [I] just wasn't able to place those emotions. Now I'm able to do that a lot faster.
"I also feel, OK, I still get nervous and get that heavy arm. But I'm able to control it better and just not let it affect me in a way that my body is going down or, where I'm not able to play the same type of tennis that I want to play."
The 27-year-old Clijsters agreed her next challenge is to go prove she can win at the other Slams.
She says, "I want to do well in all of them, of course."
She was asked now how long she wants to keep playing. And the remorseless competitor in Clijsters was back.
She left no doubt she really can finally separate being nice and playing "nice."
"Now that I'm playing well, obviously, why -- I'm not going to just give it up," she said.
Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.