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Clijsters' Rally Turns On Mauresmo's Breaking Point

After being two points from defeat, Belgian takes Italian Open title in three sets.

May 19, 2003|Bud Collins | Special to The Times

ROME — Amelie Mauresmo had been enjoying what could have been the week of her life in the Italian Open.

But it was Kim Clijsters who ended up with something to tell her grandchildren.

For Mauresmo, the last few days included draining victories over Jennifer Capriati and the world's No. 1 player, Serena Williams -- bringing her within tasting distance of the title that had never been won by a French woman.

But a mere two points from defeating No. 2-ranked Clijsters in Sunday's final, things changed for Mauresmo. Her beautifully constructed royal palace came apart like a house of cards. Within a minute, Clijsters -- the modest, pleasant but hard-edged competitor -- had resisted Mauresmo with biting backhands and reversed the course of the match.

When she broke Mauresmo to cause a tiebreaker, it was abruptly as good as over, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-0. Meaning it was Belgium that had its first Italian Open women's champion, and Mauresmo had lost the final a third time.

"I was pushing, pushing to get there [two points away] and felt I would win," Mauresmo shrugged, "but suddenly I didn't have enough energy."

Hoping she "could recover energy," Mauresmo requested a 10-minute intermission after the second set, permissible in particularly oppressive temperatures (88 degrees) and humidity.

"It didn't help," she said.

Clijsters, whose groundstrokes were uncertain for almost two sets, didn't look at a break point for the first hour, but she committed no unforced errors in the last seven games.

"I know how Amelie feels," Clijsters said. "Last Sunday in the Berlin final against Justine [Henin-Hardenne] I lost because I missed on three match points. This makes up for that."

On splitting the Sisters Sledgehammer -- Serena and Venus -- by creeping to No. 2, Clijsters said, "No. 2 doesn't feel like me yet. It's weird. No. 1 would be unbelievable, but someday I'll have something to tell my grandchildren -- that I was No. 2 in the world."

Mauresmo may have been doomed nine games before she came so close to triumph. Breaking Clijsters to start the second, she held a break point to lead, 3-0. However, she blew the return of a second serve. Still Mauresmo forehanded her way to another break, and 6-5.

The end looked near, but it would take a cruel twist for the Frenchwoman. After her serve was broken to make it 6-6, Mauresmo registered only 11 more points (three in the tiebreaker), and the final set was over in 15 minutes.

*

Martina Navratilova waited 16 years to stand once more as a doubles empress at Il Foro Italico. In the 1987 Italian Open, at age 30, Navratilova had shepherded 16-year-old Gabriela Sabatini to the doubles title.

And, at 46, here she was again, chaperoning a 17-year-old Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova, to a 6-4, 5-7, 6-2 victory over Nadia Petrova of Russia and Jelena Dokic of Serbia.

Navratilova, with alert volleying and cool position play made the difference after she and Kuznetsova bungled two match points in the second set. For her career, Navratilova has 170 doubles titles.

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