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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 September, 2003, 12:14 GMT 13:14 UK
Number one bridesmaid
By Sophie Brown

The statistics books will show that it has been a good year for Kim Clijsters.

Still only 20, the Belgian has gone as far as or further than she has ever gone before in each of the Grand Slams, reaching the last four every time and the final twice.

Kim Clijsters during her US Open final defeat to Justine Henin-Hardenne
Grand Slam titles have so far slipped through Clijsters' fingers

She has won a clutch of titles and in doing so, has become the world number one.

And yet with all of the season's Grand Slams now played, Clijsters must be disappointed not to have clinched the major title that has so far eluded her.

She became only the 12th player to reach the top of the world rankings since the system began 28 years ago but is the only one to do so without having won a Grand Slam title.

She went into the US Open as the new world number one and breezed through to the final without dropping a set.

In contrast, her final opponent Justine Henin-Hardenne had needed an intravenous drip after an exhausting semi-final battle with Jennifer Capriati.

Yet there was almost a sense of inevitability when it was Henin-Hardenne who took the title in straight sets.

Clijsters was her usual gracious self in defeat but the fact is that she has developed a reputation as not being able to perform on the big occasion.

She leads Henin-Hardenne 8-6 in their head-to-heads but has lost five of the six finals they have met in.

Ironically, Clijsters reached the first of her three Grand Slam finals in 2001 by beating Henin-Hardenne in the semis when the latter crumbled after having a point for a 6-2 5-2 lead.

Clijsters went on to play Capriati in the final, losing 12-10 in the third set - she had her chances but as an 18-year-old playing in her first Grand Slam final, few could call it a choke.

But as she has progressed into the world's elite, the expected major titles have failed to materialise.

In this year's Australian Open semi-finals, she had match point when serving at 5-1 in the third set against Serena Williams.

It was a chance to break the Williams' sisters stranglehold over the Grand Slams but Clijsters somehow let victory slip from her grasp.

"I tried to hang in there, but it just wasn't good enough in the end. I can't blame myself for anything," said Clijsters after the match.

At the French Open, Clijsters faced Henin-Hardenne in the final and tamely succumbed 6-0 6-4.

CLIJSTERS' 2003 GRAND SLAMS
Kim Clijsters watches Justine Henin-Hardenne lift the US Open title
Aus Open: Semi-finalist
French Open: Runner-up
Wimbledon: Semi-finalist
US Open: Runner-up
In the post-match interviews, Clijsters again focused on her opponent's strengths rather than her own possible mental frailty.

And after this latest defeat to Henin-Hardenne, Clijsters steered away from suggestions that she had choked.

"I was disappointed with my performance, but I played an opponent who was just the best today, and the best of the whole tournament," she said.

"My whole season has been really good. That's why I don't want this one match to overlook all the good things I've done this season. I always want to take the positives."

But she did give a hint that she was feeling the pressure.

"I think I was a little bit more nervous (than at Roland Garros) - that's why I had a slow start," she admitted.

Such nerves probably stemmed from the expectation that being world number one and top seed brings - especially after suggestions from some quarters that without a Grand Slam title, she does not deserve to top the rankings.

There are certainly growing question marks about her temperament - Clijsters arguably lacks the killer instinct and there will be those who suggest that her mental approach needs remoulding.

She does not seem to have the single-minded focus of her arch-rival Henin-Hardenne, a player who wants to win at all costs.

The amiable and fun-loving Clijsters is popular with players and fans alike and does not hide the fact that tennis is not her be-all and end-all - the long-time girlfriend of Lleyton Hewitt, she also has a life off the women's circuit.

Clijsters has come out of the US Open with her number one ranking intact but there is still no Grand Slam title in her locker and the pressure and carping will only grow until that changes.





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