Two Grand Slam champions: two former world No. 1s: two of the most likeable women on the WTA tour. And both Kim Clijsters and Venus Williams will be hoping to reclaim the Sony Ericsson Open title. It should be a blockbuster.
The stats alone make the mouth water.
They have both won dozens of titles: Williams 43 and Clijsters 36.
This will be their 12th meeting in nine years, and Williams leads Clijsters by just six wins to five.
Four of those match-ups have been in finals, and in those they share the honors at two apiece.
Both women, too, are enjoying something of a renaissance.
The Clijsters story, leaving tennis to marry and become a mother, only to return as an unranked player and win the 2009 U.S. Open, is the stuff of Hollywood.
She has not played in the Miami event since 2007, and has not won it since 2005. On that occasion, too, she was making a comeback from injury. She was unseeded, beat four of the top six seeds, and did not lose a set on her way to the title.
Williams has won the Miami title three times before, but this would be her first in nine years. What’s more, it would mark her third consecutive title of 2010, following victories in Dubai and Acapulco. By reaching the final, Williams has achieved a match-winning streak of 15, and the last time she did that was in 2004.
So the stage is set for a real crowd-pleaser of a final, which also raises the small question of just who the record-breaking numbers of fans will support on Saturday.
Clijsters has always been a favorite wherever she has played. Generous and friendly both on and off court, and with a sunny demeanour that lights up every tournament, she is now more popular than ever before.
The clincher, of course, was the scene at Flushing Meadows following her emotional win just a month after returning from retirement.
If the tears hadn’t started when she lifted the trophy, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after tiny daughter Jada ran into Clijsters' arms.
Williams, though, is a local heroine, based in Florida, American through and through. With her sister, Serena, she has become one of her country’s most renowned and enduring athletes, yet has never lost the innate warmth and modesty that has characterised her career.
Many had supposed that recurrent injuries, age, and the dominance of her sister in the rankings might affect her chances of hitting the heights once more. How wrong they were.
The lucky ticket-holders to this final, therefore, will have a tough job, both in picking a winner and picking a favorite.
And make no mistake. Based on their performances through this tournament’s draw, this could be anyone’s title.
Clijsters first. She lost just two games in beating the six-foot, 20-year-old Petra Kvitova in her first match. She lost even fewer games in her next match against No. 17 seed, Shahar Peer, 6-0, 6-1, dropping just two points on her first serve.
Things looked tougher in the fourth round where she faced No. 4 seed and defending champion Victoria Azarenka. But there, too, Clijsters was imperious, beating her opponent 6-4, 6-0. Azarenka scored just nine winners.
Samantha Stosur, the No. 9 seed, put up a little more resistance, but still failed to take a set from Clijsters. Indeed the Belgian faced no break points in the first set and just one in the second. She won the match on her first match point.
Her semifinal match against long-term rival and fellow comeback queen Justine Henin was a different affair altogether. Although she appeared to have the match under her control in taking the first set 6-2, Henin fought back to take the second in a tiebreak.
The huge respect each has for the other’s ability made for an edgy match full of errors: 63 unforced errors (including 10 double faults) from Clijsters, and 44 (with eight double faults) from her opponent. The final set, though, was a high-quality battle of big baseline rallies and acute-angled shot-making. Clijsters eventually closed out a win, 8-6 in the final set tie-break.
The route of Williams has been a mirror image of Clijsters’, scoring more convincing wins as the tournament progressed.
Although she advanced through her first couple of matches in solid form, she found the challenge of No. 19 seed Daniela Hantuchova a rather different affair.
Coming into the match, Williams had only lost one set to the Slovakian in nine matches. She lost her second in the first set in Miami.
Indeed, Williams lost eight of the first nine games before she herself won four games on the bounce, and eventually pulled out a win, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4. She scored 35 winners, but also 41 unforced errors, including six double faults.
From there on in, however, Williams has looked more and more dominant. She beat No. 6 seed Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 6-1, taking the second set in just 33 minutes. She then took out 13th seed Marion Bartoli, 6-3, 6-4.
She may be in her 30th year, but Williams showed she is fit, eager, and working her way into great form after more than a month’s break from the tour.
So she is certainly feeling confident. After her win over Radwanka, she said simply: “I was eager to clean up my act today. We had some good rallies but I just see myself coming out on top.”
Much will depend on the Williams serve, of course. She has the speed record in all four Grand Slams, the fastest being on the North American hard courts at 129 m.p.h.
“Obviously I have a huge advantage with my serve. It has always kind of been that way.”
If the temperature is hot, as is predicted for Saturday’s schedule, Clijsters will face a daunting prospect, and not just against the serving.
The 6’1” Williams has shown more and more her willingness to add the serve-and-volley game to her aggressive style of play. She’s made plenty of net approaches in matches this week, including eight point-winners in the second set against Bartoli.
“Especially this year I’ve just been to the net a lot…It just seemed natural. I was just running in. My legs took me there, so I’ve gotta keep doing that.”
Williams has a strong returning game, too. Clijsters should make a note of Bartoli’s critique after her own semifinal defeat: “I think it’s also that she’s so inside the baseline. I would just put the first serve in, and she would just get over it and kill me on the return of serve.”
So Clijsters will need to hit the ground running with her own attacking style of play.
“I think a lot is going to come down to the serve…I have to go out and play aggressively again.”
Her win over Henin in such determined style could be just the test she needed after her relatively straightforward run to the final.
She has worked her way into her big hitting game, and adjusted to the court and the conditions perfectly. Her early exits from the Australian Open and from Indian Wells should also ensure that she has plenty of running left in her legs.
Best of all, she’s clearly feeling good: “I’ve been really trying to focus on getting my swing back and the feeling where you can play freely, have a loose arm…It’s a nice feeling to have.”
The two women met in the charity exho event, the Billie Jean King Cup, at the beginning of March: Clijsters was runner-up to Williams.
But their previous “official” match was in last year’s U.S. Open. It was an interesting, see-sawing affair with neither player hitting their best at the same time. The scoreline reflected it: 6-0, 0-6, 6-4 to Clijsters.
This time, both seem to be hitting their best simultaneously. Both have motivation and incentive to go all out for this title. Both, surely, will be lifted to their best by the enthusiastic Miami crowds.
It should be a three-setter. It could square their head-to-head at an even half dozen apiece. It could push Clijsters into the top 10 for the first time since she walked away from the game three years ago.
It could well—just—be the Belgian’s day.
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