Kim Clijsters is 18 and a Grand Slam finalist. She played one of the memorable finals in French Open history, losing, 12-10, in the third set to Jennifer Capriati. The sixth-ranked Clijsters also had another career breakthrough on Sunday in the Stanford final, beating Lindsay Davenport for the first time in five matches.
Justine Henin is 19 and a Grand Slam finalist. She ended Capriati's dream of a Grand Slam in the Wimbledon semifinals and then lost to Venus Williams in three sets.
Clijsters was supposed to be better on grass but reached her first Slam final on clay. Henin first succeeded on clay but got to her first Slam final on grass.
So, an authority was consulted on the two Belgian teenagers. Another budding Belgian star was sought for his opinion. But Xavier Malisse wasn't sure how to answer this question: Who will have a better career, Clijsters or Henin?
Malisse shook his head.
"Both are great people," he said. "But I wouldn't put five cents on it. It's a close call."
Instead of looking ahead, the modest Clijsters is intent on staying grounded. After the French Open, she noticed the other players were regarding her differently.
"When I was ranked 50 and I played those top players I really wanted to show I could beat them," she said. "Now it's even harder. That's what I have to be careful about. I won't take anything easy."
Clijsters was doing the interview from Palo Alto. She has been busy, beating Davenport and losing earlier this month to Iroda Tulyagonova on clay in Belgium, and will be at the Acura Classic, which starts today at La Costa Spa & Resort in Carlsbad. Clijsters is seeded fifth behind Martina Hingis, Williams, Capriati and Davenport. Williams won the tournament last year.
The event will be the first for Hingis since her disastrous first-round loss at Wimbledon and also the first appearance in almost six months for fan favorite Anna Kournikova, who has been sidelined by an injured foot since February.
Fittingly, Hingis and Kournikova are playing doubles together again. Evidently, they have patched up their differences.
Clijsters is content to stay out of the headlines, though she is dating Lleyton Hewitt, a top player on the ATP tour.
"Since we are both very involved in tennis, I don't think we talk about tennis much," she said. "That's very good. We have some other things to think of."
She is practical and takes a mature approach to her job.
"I've been starting to travel since I was 13," Clijsters said. "I was always the youngest player when I was in the 14s. My friends were 17 and 18--that has a lot to do with it. We shared things and had to be by ourselves."
The professional approach also comes from her father, Leo, who was a star soccer player for the Belgian national team. She joked that she is known as his daughter, although younger kids might now know him as her father.
Of her biggest moment, she said she has not watched a tape of the Capriati match and doesn't intend to do so. "I don't really watch matches," Clijsters said. "I like to watch other people. I don't know why. My dad never watched himself playing soccer. That's what he tells me. Maybe that's why I don't watch my matches."
There is some background behind the recent departures of Doug McCurdy and Tom Gullikson from their respective positions as director of player development and director of coaching at the USTA. It became clear that major changes were coming after a board meeting in March at Indian Wells.
"The two conclusions have been very helpful," said executive director Rick Ferman. "The first was that the USTA should play a larger role in the development of our best players. We intend to do that, we intend to provide more support for our best players and support doesn't always just mean money."
The first move is making a high-profile hire to run the development program, and officials expect to announce it at the U.S. Open.
"Nick Bollettieri would have to appear on any list where you're considering the development of young players," Ferman said. "Let's just leave it at that."
Player development has been moved up on the USTA's priority list behind community tennis programs and the U.S. Open. Ferman said there could be an increase or reallocation in funding of the $9-million program. Another $5 million is allocated to the USTA's professional circuit events.
Of local note, the changes in player development could involve the soon-to-be-built multisports complex at Carson. The Anschutz group has hired Kevin O'Connor, formerly of the resort in Saddlebrook, Fla., to be its executive director overseeing tennis operations.
"We are interested in looking at developing a national training center concept," Ferman said. "That would include two or three sites. Certainly a West Coast presence is on that list. L.A. would certainly be an obvious top pick for that."