Updated: February 17, 2011, 12:43 PM ET

How hungry is Clijsters for tennis history?

Garber By Greg Garber
ESPN.com
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It was appropriate that one match after she guaranteed her return to the WTA's No. 1 ranking, Kim Clijsters lost in the Paris final to a player outside the top 10.

Yes, as fast as you can say Petra Kvitova, it became clear early in this 2011 season that women's tennis is wide open.

"Kim's on top, but we're in a time where it's not like the Serena era or the Venus era or the Justine era," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said earlier this week. "It shows you how it's up for grabs. People who don't follow the sport say, 'Well, Serena's No. 1.' Actually, she hasn't played since last July and, hey, it's February.

"What does it say? Work hard and you could win a major or be in the top five by the end of the year. That should make it pretty easy to motivate people. There are a lot of opportunities, great rewards, monetary and title-wise."

Clijsters is No. 1 for the first time since March 2006 -- a gap of 256 weeks, second all time to Serena Williams' 265-week sabbatical -- but, of course, she could lose that spot if Caroline Wozniacki gets to the semifinals in either Dubai or Doha. Only two players have won more than 80 percent of their matches since August 2009: Clijsters and Williams.

With Justine Henin officially retired (for the second time) and Venus Williams hobbled by a hip injury at age 30, a healthy Serena seems like the only player equipped to prevent Clijsters from winning another two or three majors by the end of 2012. But when will Serena, who turns 30 in September, return to health? When will she emerge from her layoff following last summer's foot injury? Officially, she's scheduled to play next month in Miami, but no one is convinced that will happen.

"We've got to start preparing for life after the Williams sisters," said U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez. "You can't deny the fact that their bodies are breaking down."

Clijsters has said she would like to leave the game after the 2012 Olympics to have a second child. But could she have imagined a time when she would be the favorite to win virtually every tournament she plays?

"Clijsters lost, what, her first four major finals?" Shriver said. "Now, after retiring, she's won her last four. Who saw that coming? It depends if she has the hunger for tennis history. Financially, she should be fine, but it comes down to this: How much does she love those moments that she had in September and a few weeks ago in Australia? By the [2012] Olympics, if she has five or six majors, how hungry is she for more rarefied air?"

Fernandez, a mother of two, doesn't see Clijsters lingering.

"She said she was leaving before and no one believed her," Fernandez said. "I believe this will be her last full season. She loves her life, but she wants to have more children. I think she'll wind down her schedule in 2012."

Outside of Clijsters -- and Serena? -- who has the best chance to take one of the three remaining Grand Slam singles titles? Wozniacki is the leading contender, but she needs to find a little more offense to go with those dazzling retrieving skills. Clearly, Kvitova, now ranked No. 14, has a bigger game. The 20-year-old Czech lefty beat Clijsters 6-4, 6-3 for her second title of the year. She showed some mental strength in overcoming a match point (against Barbora Strycova) in the second round and eluding a 5-3 third-set deficit to Yanina Wickmayer in the quarterfinals.

"If she continues to play like that," Clijsters said, "she will be top 10 before long. She is so much fitter and moves better than last year."

And what about Vera Zvonareva? At the age of 26, will she break through in a way that Elena Dementieva never did? Sam Stosur has the physical game to do it, but can she sustain her poise in the big moments? Li Na, who has also been to a major final, could contend at Wimbledon. And does Maria Sharapova, still only 23, have a few more Slams in her if she can rebuild her shoulder and serve?

Asked for a short list of emerging stars, Fernandez mentioned Kvitova, Bojana Jovanovski, Julia Goerges and Yanina Wickmayer.

"The state of the game shows you how hard it is to stay healthy week in and week out," Fernandez said. "How the new generation handles their schedules and their training will go a long way toward determining who's ultimately successful."

5 Questions With …

Rebecca Marino

The upward mobility, as evidenced in her year-end WTA ranking, has been an impressive, steady progression: 2007 (No. 954), 2008 (No. 340), 2009 (No. 182), 2010 (No. 101).

And now, just two months past her 20th birthday, the 6-foot Canadian has broken into the top 100, at No. 80. Her signature moment so far was qualifying at last year's U.S. Open, winning her first-round match and pushing Venus Williams into a first-set tiebreaker in the second round. Marino is already one of the game's biggest servers. At the Australian Open, she unleashed one at 119.9 miles per hour, the third-fastest serve on the women's side this year, behind Venus (121.2) and Lucie Hradecka (120.5).

Her new ranking didn't come quickly enough to exempt her from the qualifying process at Indian Wells or Miami, but look for her in those main draws, nevertheless. ESPN.com chatted with Marino -- who is blogging for the WTA website -- earlier this week, after her first-round win over Jamie Hampton at the Cellular South Cup in Memphis, Tenn.:

ESPN.com: This was the first tournament in which you've actually been seeded -- No. 6. What was that like?

Marino: I had to do a little bit of a double take. First of all, I can avoid the other top seeds. Second, it's a bit of a confident boost. It's like they say, onward and upwards.

ESPN.com: Your uncle, George Hungerford, was an Olympic gold medalist in rowing [Tokyo, 1964] and your brother, Steven, rows for Cal-Berkeley. How did you manage to avoid crew with those strong shoulders?

Marino: A lot of people say that. I was never really introduced to the sport, even though everyone in our family does it. I wasn't much of a tennis fan growing up, but I started taking lessons [at Grant Connell Tennis Centre in North Vancouver, British Columbia]. After I moved to the national training center [in Montreal], I started to find my game.

ESPN.com: Last year you failed in your first seven attempts to qualify your way into WTA draws. How did you summon the perseverance to keep trying?

Marino: [Laughing] Actually, I didn't know that fact. It was just one of those things. You play so many matches in a year, you try and take the good things from it and then put it behind you. It makes a big difference not having to qualify. Last summer, everything started to click for me. When things like that happen, you get confidence. And other people see that as well. It's a snowball effect. I feel like I belong at this level.

ESPN.com: Your strengths and weaknesses?

Marino: My serve is one of my bigger assets. I love my serve and try and use it to the most advantage. It's a little bit intimidating for other girls when they step up to the line, although sometimes it's up and down. Really, everything needs to be worked on. Being a taller player, movement is something people will pick on. It's a fact of life. I'd also like to improve my net game, get more comfortable up there. I haven't played a lot of doubles, but I think in the future it will help me.

ESPN.com: Your emergence reminds me of your countryman, Milos Raonic, another 20-year-old with a big serve. Have you been compared to Raonic, who is already ranked No. 59?

Marino: No, not really. But I notice similarities. I'm 11 days older than he is. I'm really happy Milos is playing so well. Our [Canadian] program is strong. I don't like to put numbers on things, but [top 50 is] pretty close, an attainable goal. I don't want to create pressure and go super-crazy, but some day the top 10? It's difficult, but possible.

The Big Three (again)?

It happened for only the third time in six years. Someone other than Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal won a Grand Slam singles title.

Since Marat Safin defeated Federer in a terrific five-set semifinal and then Lleyton Hewitt in the 2005 Australian Open final, only Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro have broken the lethal monopoly Roger and Rafa have held in men's tennis.

When Djokovic, then only 20, beat Federer in a straight-sets semifinal and won the 2008 final over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, it suddenly looked like a three-man race. Djokovic, however, lost his nerve somewhere in the coming-of-age process. But after a drought of 10 consecutive majors without reaching a final, Djokovic handled Federer in last year's U.S. Open semifinals before losing to Nadal, who completed his career Grand Slam. And now, after beating Andy Murray in a brutally one-sided Aussie final, Djokovic is a two-time major champion.

With Federer approaching 30 and Nadal still plagued by doubts that his physical style of play will limit his effectiveness going forward -- Rafa left Melbourne for the second consecutive year with an injury -- Djokovic again looks up to the task. Next month's events at Indian Wells and Miami should provide more evidence, one way or the other.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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