Clijsters stands out amid turmoil

NEW YORK -- This U.S. Open women's draw has been littered with love sets, dinged with double faults and double bagels and pockmarked with emotional meltdowns that make you want to avert your gaze.

Amid all this, Kim Clijsters' wide, appreciative, often fierce and occasionally amused blue eyes have been one of the few beacons of normalcy -- even though what she has accomplished here so far, reaching the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam in her third event back from a two-year retirement, can only be called exceptional. So is her perspective after having a daughter and losing her father over an 11-month span during her hiatus.

"You know, in the past, I wanted to win a lot. Sometimes maybe too much, even,'' said Clijsters, who will face China's 18th-seeded Na Li on Tuesday.

"When I go home after I've been training here during a day off, it doesn't matter to our daughter or my husband whether I won the day before or not. It doesn't matter to them. That's a nice feeling to have, knowing, 'OK, I'm Mommy,' and she doesn't care too much about anything else.''

Clijsters emanates the typical upbeat aura of someone rediscovering a passion, but then again, she was considered one of the most open, sunny personalities in women's tennis before she retired. It may not be surprising that she has reprised that role since coming back from maternity leave, but this odd lunar phase in the game makes her stand out all the more.

Only two of the eight women left in the draw are top-10 players. (Clijsters herself is still unranked, but her play thus far guarantees she'll enter the standings in the 70s; she could crack the top 20 if she wins the Open.) There's no doubt that upsets cut both ways in a Slam, introducing a worldwide audience to new faces like the endearing Melanie Oudin. It's the way the top seeds have gone out that has been distressing.

Ana Ivanovic, eliminated in the first round, made the puffy-eyed admission that she needs time away from the game. No. 1 Dinara Safina continues to wilt under the pressure of her status. Maria Sharapova's serving woes, which peaked with 21 double faults in her third-round match against Oudin, have become excruciating to watch.

Vera Zvonareva, who had made a concerted effort to change her reputation as a competitive time bomb, set a new standard for histrionics in her loss to raven-haired Italian grinder Flavia Pennetta. Zvonareva burst into tears on court while frittering away six match points, then spent much of the third set tearing madly at the bandages on her knees, using language that earned her a code violation and whacking herself on the leg in literal self-flagellation. (Chair umpire Lynn Welch's decision not to grant her request for scissors appears prudent in retrospect.) Cultured, educated, immensely likable and articulate off the court, Zvonareva nonetheless seemed to be in a state of denial following the match, telling reporters she hadn't lost her temper.

Does the WTA need a provision for sabbaticals or mental health breaks as well as physical injuries? New chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster, fresh from revamping the tour schedule to try to increase player commitments, isn't keen on the idea. "Never say never, but that would be an extreme situation,'' she told reporters Monday.

ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, who is also the U.S. Tennis Association's director of elite player development, has some theories about why the women's game appears to be in a difficult transition period.

"There's more power in the women's game than ever, and with more power comes a loss of control,'' McEnroe said from the stands overlooking Court 8, where he was watching U.S. junior Lauren Embree play a singles match. "I think the women haven't quite caught up to the technology [of more potent rackets and strings]. You see so many unforced errors. It's as if the women know how to go for broke but they don't know quite how to reel it in.

"A lot of the women are struggling on their serve because they're feeling more fear from the returner. When they get nervous, it's the first thing that breaks down -- 'I'm gonna get clobbered on my second serve.' In the old days, Chrissie [Evert] and Martina [Navratilova] would just chip it back, keep it in play.''

Clijsters hasn't been immune from the plague of technical or mental lapses, although she is among the Open's statistical leaders in at least one important indicator of physical and psychological fitness: break point conversions (63 percent over four matches). When a reporter began to ask her to analyze her 6-0, 0-6, 6-4 win over Venus Williams, Clijsters finished the sentence with the words "very weird.''

She cried after that match, but said it was pure release rather than professional relief that she had gotten that far. Clijsters specified that she didn't come back to please fans -- she came back to compete and excel. The warm reaction gratifies her, but she said what means the most is having the people close to her sitting courtside, sharing the moment.

When another reporter started to postulate that Clijsters might be stronger mentally because of her recent personal experience, she interrupted pleasantly, saying, "Look, I tightened up in that match, too.'' She said it with the poise of an athlete who saw it as a blip, not a pattern.

Clijsters' eventful time off only reinforced the lessons that life is more complex than sound bites, and true storylines rarely play out without detours. The mere fact that she has her act together may give her a big edge, allowing her to stride confidently into an arena instead of dreading that some underground mine is ready to blow.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.