FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Tennis may be the only sport where 26 is considered old. And Kim Clijsters is feeling it. The comeback kid on the tournament – who beat China’s Na Li in straight sets today, 6-2, 6-4, to earn a trip to the Semifinals – knows she’s not a teenager anymore.
“I definitely think my face has definitely changed over the years,” said the unseeded Clijsters. “I think when I was 15, 16 coming on, I remember Wimbledon, when I did well there, you know, I really had to stop myself from like asking everybody for autographs in the locker room and everything.
“I just remember just being so in awe with everything that was happening around me and then playing on the center court and everything. It just overwhelms you a little bit. You kind of just forget what you have to do out there to play good tennis.”
Yet now Clijsters is a veteran and even though she’s been away from the game for two years, the 2005 US Open Champion knows that an older tennis player needs to play wiser, yet sometimes you have to go past your limits.
“I believe that you shouldn’t focus on stopping at your limit,” she said. “I think you can always improve and improve, you know, where, in a match you don’t have to reach that far. I think that’s why we train and that’s why we have, you know, very intense workouts months before you get to a tournament is so that you can go out there and not worrying about, you know, I’m getting close to my limit. I have to slow down a little bit or anything.
“So I think that’s something that is mentally very important I think for any player, is knowing that, you know, I’ve worked out a lot harder in practice or in the gym or anything, so I know that I’m capable of doing it during a match, whether it’s a three-set match or even for the men a five-set match.”
Although overshadowed by up and comers like Melanie Oudin and Caroline Wozniacki, Clijsters has been one of the major stories at the Open, she will face the winner of Serena Williams/Flavia Pennetta match later tonight.
Much like Clijsters, Williams is a veteran on the tour – she’s actually a year older than Belgian – and they faced each other 10 years ago when they were just teenagers, like the 17 year-old Oudin and 19 year-old Wozniacki.
“I remember playing against her here a few years ago or many, many years ago, let’s say,” she said. “I think it was 2000 or ’99 even, so ten years ago -whew – where I was kind of in a similar situation as maybe Oudin or someone where you’re up and you’re playing those big matches.
“But it was fun. It’s just great. But that’s where I first saw, you know, the type of players that, you know, the type of player that Serena is. She was missing a few more shots. I was kind of just bringing a lot of balls back and she was kind of missing them. But then at 5-2 in the third set where I was up, she just, bang, started going for aces, started hitting winners. Like something switched in her head.”
Yet, Williams needs to beat Pannetta to have a date with Clijsters, and the crafty veteran will be ready for either player.
“You know, she’s a good friend, and I was extremely happy for her when she reached a top 10 ranking,” Clijsters said. “Probably I think it was after Cincinnati, she got to her first top 10 ranking. So that was really nice to just see that. She’s worked very hard and she’s a fun girl, as well. She’s improved her game.”
And if Clijsters is able to move on, she could face one of the teenagers in the Finals, something, the youthful veteran would look forward to challenging.
“I love watching Oudin play, Wozniacki, Wickmayer, it’s so much fun for me to just watch on TV and see the emotions that come out of them when they win a match,” Clijsters said. “I get so happy when I just see that.
“But then again, I think, you know, I’m talking to like my coach and everyone, Wow, she’s only 17. They were like, Yeah, but you were like that. You don’t think like that at the moment. You don’t really think about the age or anything. Unless like now that I’m older, I look back and I’m like, ‘Wow, you know, they’re young.’ You see that, the new face that’s still on there. They enjoy everything so much and they look at things in a different way when they get to a Grand Slam, because it’s so new.”
Spoken like at true veteran at age 26.