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Clijsters beats Sharapova in Key Biscayne final

Posted: Sunday, April 03, 2005

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — From corner to corner Kim Clijsters ran, sliding into the splits with a cheerleader's zeal as she retrieved shot after shot, keeping alive yet another rally — and her comeback.

The tenacious Belgian earned a second consecutive title Saturday in her remarkable return from a career-threatening wrist injury, beating Maria Sharapova 6-3, 7-5 in the final of the Nasdaq-100 Open.

The tournament was just the third in Clijsters' latest comeback from the injury, which required surgery and forced her to miss much of last year. She has won 14 matches in a row, including the Indian Wells title two weeks ago, and beat six top-10 players in her past nine matches.

''It has been an incredible four weeks,'' Clijsters said. ''I'm just going to try to enjoy it as much as I can.''

To Sharapova's chagrin, her superior power was negated by Clijsters' exceptional mobility. More than once the No. 2-seeded Russian hit an apparent winner, only to have a scrambling Clijsters extend the point — and eventually win it.

''You just have to expect that she's going to get every ball back,'' Sharapova said. ''Running from corner to corner is like a piece of cake for her.''

Ranked No. 1 for 12 weeks in 2003, Clijsters slipped to 133rd before Indian Wells but will climb to 17th next week. That ensures she'll be seeded at the French Open, where she's a two-time runner-up.

''Obviously from today's performance she's a top-five player,'' Sharapova said.

Winning Indian Wells and Key Biscayne back to back suggests as much. The only other woman to achieve the feat was Steffi Graf in 1994 and 1996.

Top-ranked Roger Federer, hoping to join Clijsters as a first-time Key Biscayne champion, plays Spaniard Rafael Nadal in the best-of-five men's final Sunday. Federer has won 17 consecutive finals and is a heavy favorite, as Nadal acknowledged in broken English.

''If he don't play very, very well, and I play one of my best matches,'' the 18-year-old Mallorcan said, ''I think I have a little bit chance, no?''

Nadal's odds are probably no worse than those of Clijsters becoming the first unseeded women's champion in the 21-year history of the tournament.

She was sidelined in March 2004 by an injury to her left wrist that hindered her two-handed backhand. She underwent surgery in June to repair a torn tendon and remove a cyst, then spent two months in a cast.

''Once you come out of the plaster, you think, 'How am I ever going to play tennis again?''' she said. ''You have no more muscles there. You can't even move your fingers.''

Clijsters returned to the tour in September, played three matches and snapped the capsule around the tendon in her wrist. That led to another two months in a cast, and doctors said her career might be over at age 21.

''That's tough to hear,'' she said. ''You don't want to think about that.''

Now the wrist is a little sore but otherwise fine, she said. And her footwork might be better than ever.

While gusty wind made for some ragged exchanges in the final, Clijsters repeatedly chased down shots beyond the reach of most players. Her father played soccer and her mother was a gymnast, and those bloodlines were evident every time she pursued a ball.

In the category of don't-try-this-at-home are the splits that are a staple of her game, allowing her to stretch into the corners and yet reverse direction quickly. She used the maneuver on the first point, made an improbable retrieval and extended the rally to 10 strokes until Sharapova hit a shot wide.

''Those points maybe make your opponent think a little bit,'' Clijsters said.

On break point in the sixth game, she skidded into the left corner and then the right chasing balls and sent both back. Sharapova then hurried an overhead slam and pushed it wide to fall behind 4-2.

Clijsters' ability to improvise paid off again on a pivotal point in the second set. When Sharapova hit a slam, Clijsters managed to lob it back over her head and won the point for a 4-3 lead.

''The biggest surprise is it was her 14th straight match, and I didn't feel like she was physically fatigued,'' Sharapova said. ''I'm not at the point where I can do that. She can play all day out there.''

Clijsters played a shaky game serving for the match at 5-4 but earned another chance by breaking back. When Sharapova sent a return long on the third championship point, a teary-eyed Clijsters had another trophy for her rapidly expanding collection.



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