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BILL DWYRE

Kim Clijsters has got it all together

Great tennis is only a piece of the puzzle for 'Our Kim,' an international star who enjoys nothing more than time with her daughter.

March 09, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Kim Clijsters could be back on top of the tennis world with a victory at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
Kim Clijsters could be back on top of the tennis world with a victory at the… (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images )

Kim Clijsters, the queen of normal, was brightening the interview room Wednesday at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament.

She enters and the lights turn up, even if the switch had been flicked hours ago.

There are tennis players who live in the vacuum that the pro tour provides, almost demands. And there are tennis players who walk right through the restrictive walls of celebrity, smell the flowers on the outside and still find a way to succeed. Clijsters is the latter.

She is within a couple of well-hit backhands of being No. 1 in the world, again, for a fourth time. That could happen here at Indian Wells, where she has won twice and where current No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, is also competing in this prestigious two-week event.

Clijsters won the tour's first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open; helped her country win a Fed Cup match against the United States; lost in the final of a tournament in Paris, and then went home to tend to the important stuff.

"I had three weeks, and it was great," she says. "There was the cooking, taking her [daughter Jada] to school and just being home."

Home is Belgium, with occasional stops in New Jersey, where her husband is from.

But Clijsters has become an adopted child of the sports world. Win or lose, whether the tournament is being played at the North Pole or North Texas, she is "Our Kim." She has endeared herself to sports fans all over the world because she hasn't tried to.

Clijsters is who she is. With her, appearances are never deceiving. Celebrity runs on results and personality. Clijsters is one and has both.

The Australian title was her fourth major. She won her second U.S. Open title in 2009, after a nearly two-year sabbatical, during which she got married and had Jada. Then she returned to New York last year and won again.

She will be 28 in June. She has been doing this a long time. Her first Indian Wells appearance was in 2000, the first year of the new stadium. Last year, she returned for the first time since 2005 and now is back with the same smile on her face.

Is she happy that her forehand is grooving, or her serve popping? It's much simpler than that.

"There is a pool and slide at the hotel," she says, "and there's the zoo and the Living Desert we can take her [Jada] to. There's plenty to do. We tennis players are pretty lucky. We pretty much follow the sun."

That's especially nice when you have a 3-year-old.

Marriage, a child and normal maturity have helped Clijsters become grounded, even while living in a public life that, literally and figuratively, makes one fly around a lot. But she had her feet planted firmly before all that too.

A British journalist recalls the days when Clijsters, a teenager, was dating men's star Lleyton Hewitt. The WTA, often excelling as control freaks, made the topic of Hewitt off-limits to journalists. In the midst of this, she sat down for an interview with Alix Ramsay of the London Times.

"Before I knew it, she was talking about Lleyton," Ramsay says, "about how she learned this from him and how she and Lleyton talked about this and that."

Clijsters wasn't defying tour orders. She merely saw no need for them. Hewitt was part of her life then and somebody was interested enough to ask about it.

Then, there was the night in August 2006, when Clijsters met a woman named Jacque Morgan at a charity fund-raising dinner during the San Diego tour stop. They chatted about dogs. Clijsters loves dogs, Morgan's had just died.

That night, they held an auction, on court, run by former tennis star Pam Shriver. The item was a black Lab puppy, and Shriver somehow got the bidding to $11,000. The mystery winner turned out to be Clijsters, who came on court, claimed her prize, asked for a stunned Morgan to come out of the crowd, and gave the puppy to her.

"We still send notes to each other," Clijsters says. "I'm going to play in San Diego this year, so I'll get to see them."

Then there was the moment Wednesday during a TV interview. The WTA had their star players scattered about on a deck of the stadium, with the perfect visual — a background view of mountains and swaying trees in bright, sunny skies. The typists and scribblers had finished and now the people with microphones and cameras took over.

Clijsters, herded from one group to another, smiled and treated each interviewer, whether it they worked for ESPN or 10-watt K-NOISE in Blythe, as if he or she were Walter Cronkite. Then, camera rolling, microphone on, one of those out-of-nowhere questions was asked that either rings the bell or falls flat.

"What is your biggest goal in life?"

Clijsters didn't pause, didn't blink.

"My goal in life is to adopt a child," she said, clearly meaning she wanted to add to whatever family she produced herself by giving a home and a better life to a child that needed one. "We're going to start working on that."

Now there's an answer you won't hear a lot on the WTA Tour.

But then, there is only one Clijsters, who is the sunshine in every tennis cloudy day.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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