Kim Clijsters and her daughter, 2009 US Open

In 2007 at the age of 23, Kim Clijsters retired to start a family. Two years later she defeated Caroline Wozniacki in the US Open final to become the first mother to win a Grand Slam title since Evonne Goolagong in 1980.

From Bud Collins History of tennis:

Serena, the title holder, was the one constant in the quarterfinals – but who were these other folks?
Well, 23-year-old Kim Clijsters, the 2005 champ, looked familiar. However, she’d been retired almost three seasons, had a baby, and played only seven matches coming into New York as a wild card with no WTA ranking.

Amazingly, she also looked formidable, the lone unseeded/wild card entry to win the title, 7-5 6-3, over 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki. As the first Dane to ascend to the final, Caroline had ousted 2004 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova 2-6 7-6 7-6 in the fourth round.

But of course, the sweetheart of Flushing – the crowds’ darling was 17-year-old Georgian Melanie Oudin; who tool off from number 70 and didn’t come down until number 9 Wozniacki stopped her in the quarters 6-2 6-2. But prior to that, come-backing Melanie the Fair Maid of Marietta, conducted her private war with Russia. Short, but long of baseline strokes and fight, she overcame numbers 36-4-29-13 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1 6-2, Elena Dementieva 5-7 6-4 6-3, Maria Sharapova 3-6 6-4 7-5, Nadia Petrova 1-6 7-6 6-3.

Co-favorites were the Sisters Williams, but Clijsters chased both of them, Venus in the fourth round 6-0 0-6 6-4, and Serena in a bizarre and contentious semi, 6-4 7-5. The latter disrupted the tournament, a match disintegrating on a sad though historic note – a penalty point leveled a raging Serena was the abrupt end. At 15-30, Serena serving a second ball, was called for a foot fault, stepping on the baseline. That made it 15-40, match point. Whereupon Serena lost her head and directed a profane, threatening tirade at the Japanese baseline judge, Shino Tsurubuchi, raising her racquet menacingly at the official. Since the American had already incurred a warning violation for smashing her racquet at the close of the first set, the next infraction – her blow-up – called for a penalty point from umpire Louise Engzell. That concluded the game and the match, an unprecedented closure without a ball being struck. Williams was fined $10,000 by the US Open, but later fined another $82,500 (a record fine) by the Grand Slam Committee. She was fortunate not to be suspended. Another stranger, number 50, Belgian Yanina Wickmayer, got to the semis, there beaten by Wozniacki, 6-3 6-3.

Serena Williams, winner of the 1999 US Open

From The Bud Collins History of tennis:

The words of Richard Williams that kid sister is the more talented of the two began to ring true.

Seventh-seed Serena, 17, became the first Williams to win a major singles title, and the first black since Althea Gibson at Forest Hills in 1958 to take a major female championship. Her run to the title was not a cake walk.
In the third round, she was on the brink of defeat against 16-year-old Belgian Kim Clijsters, a future Open champion, with Clijsters leading 5-3 in the final set before Serena won 16 of last 17 points to close, 4-6 6-2 7-5.
In the round of 16, Serena rallied from a set down to top Conchita Martinez, 4-6 6-2 6-2. Facing Monica Seles in the quarters, Serena dropped the first set again before recording a 4-6 6-3 6-2 victory. Next on her agenda was defending champion Davenport. Serena took that one 6-4 1-6 6-4.

Serena had played 16 sets, but she was ready for the final against top-seeded Hingis, winner of a bruising battle over big sister Venus 6-1 4-6 6-3 the day before that shut off a prospective all-Williams final.
Hingis took too much out of herself in that strenuous showdown, and Serena was just hitting her stride. Williams led 3-6 3-5 15-40, double match point against an overwhelmed Hingis, but Martina refused to walk away. She took three games in a row and was two points from parity at one set all. Hingis led 6-5 30-0 but Serena rekindled her energy and enthusiasm and came away with a 6-3 7-6(4) victory in her first major final.

As Serena finished off Hingis, big sister Venus watched from the stands, wearing a bittersweet expression. She had been expected to win a big championship before Serena, but the following afternoon the two sisters joined forces to capture the doubles title over Chanda Rubin and Sandrine Testud 4-6 6-1 6-4.

Louis Armstrong Stadium, US Open 2006

Already 10 years since my trip to the US Open. Time flies…


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Les Petits As, Les Petits As, juniors tournament

Extract from 25 Years of the Tennis Europe Junior Tour:

Amidst the frenetic bustle of the ‘village’ set up every year in the foyer of Tarbes’ Parc des Expositions to accompany Les Petits As, a big screen showing the second week of the Australian Open looms over the central eating area. The two tournaments on opposite sides of the globe thus progress concurrently to their respective climaxes: the superstars battling through Melbourne nights before 15,000 spectators for $40m and one of the four greatest prizes in the sport, the juniors fighting their hearts out in a cold indoor hall in the Pyrénées in front of 2,000 diehard fans and no money, but arguably the most prestigious 14 & Under trophy in the world.

It’s about as neat an encapsulation of the extremes of a tennis career as you could find – but it feels fitting to have it here. The iconic competitors whose every forehand and fist pump is magnified and replayed over us may seem larger than life, but many of them once passed through this hall in a small French town: 2015 Australian Open finalists Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray first played each other here in 2000. Fifteen years on, they serve as inspiration to the awestruck kids who dream of following in their footsteps.

“Everyone who wins here is a star!”

marvels top girls’ seed Anastasia Potapova, of Russia – the eventual champion this year.

Tarbes, a community of 50,000 in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has a proud sporting tradition – indeed, it was voted the third sportiest town in France by L’Équipe in 2010 based on the quantity and variety of sports it offered, and the financial support for them. It made sense, then, that Jean-Claude and Claudine Knaebel – a local couple with a passion for tennis – found it an accommodating site for their brainchild back in 1983.

“We knew that the 12-14 year olds were good players already – but amateurs, while the category above them had already started playing on the professional circuit,” says Claudine. “We wanted to give the youngsters experience in their own tournament.”

The local authorities immediately suggested the cavernous Parc des Expositions as a suitable venue, and – with coaches used as offices, a physio set up in a caravan and Yannick Noah, who went on to win Roland Garros that year, gracing posters – the first edition of Les Petits As welcomed competitors from four countries. By this year, that number had grown exponentially, with 32 countries represented across the singles main draws: traditional European hubs of the sport (France, Spain); recent emergent forces (Russia, Croatia), and overseas contingents travelling from as far as Asia and North America. The globalisation of tennis has been one of its most important narratives over the past two decades, and the quarter-final stage at Les Petits As proved a strong reminder of this. Over the day’s play, the diminutive fleet-footed Maltese Helene Pellicano took on the powerful Polish second seed Iga Swiatek in an absorbing match of stylistic contrasts; the ultra-aggressive strokes of Japan’s poker-faced Himari Sato, at 12 the youngest player left in either draw, thrilled spectators for a set as she pushed Russian 14th seed Kamilla Rakhimova to the brink of exit – but proved her undoing as they began to misfire throughout the deciding set. Meanwhile, though, another member of the Asian competitors, Taiwan’s Chun-Hsin Tseng, the boys’ fifth seed, was ruthlessly ending the surprise run of home favourite Adrien Gobat – and would ultimately go on to win the trophy.

Tseng is the latest example of the tournament’s pro-active approach to global expansion that has been so key to maintaining its prestige. Though he had never played in Europe before, tournament referee Michel Renaux had been impressed by the youngster’s game in an American junior event – and by his father’s devotion to his son’s nascent career, working nights so that he could coach his son during the day. Renaux extended a wild card invitation to Tseng – and it paid off, as Tseng swept to the title without the loss of a set, and indeed without the loss of any more than four games in any set, beating Europe’s top player Timofey Skatov (RUS) in the final.

There were echoes of the first time this policy paid off for the Tarbes organisers, back in its 1986 fourth edition.

“We wanted to enlarge the tournament,” recalls Claudine Knaebel. “We went to America and saw Michael Chang, spoke to his family and invited him to play. He came with his mother – it was his first time in Europe.”

The prodigious Chang also won the title – and, of course, just three years later was to become Roland Garros champion, a result that put Les Petits As on the tennis world’s radar in a huge way.
But if effective scouting is one side of the Tarbes story, the tournament’s success can also be attributed to what greets the players during their Pyrenean sojourn. Elite-level junior tennis can have something of a tough reputation: stories of temperamental, pushy or unsporting players, parents and coaches abound, and were famously the reason cited by Richard Williams for withdrawing his daughters, Venus and Serena, from junior competition. Yet at Les Petits As there is no ill behaviour on display, bar a few minor on-court grizzles.
This is a source of some pride to the organisers, who have gone to great lengths to create a ‘village’ atmosphere at the tournament. Food, clothing and equipment stalls line walkways near the courts; before and after their matches, players and coaches can be seen relaxing and socialising with each other. Indeed, Renaux states that the greatest challenge of his job – after maintaining the uniformity of the regulations – is to maintain this atmosphere.

“The aim for the players, because they are so young, is to find some conviviality in the village,” he says. “After the match, if they unfortunately lose, they are still with other players. At other tournaments, it is often just the coach and the hotel.”

This extends to supporting the children in times of real need, as well: the Knaebels recall 1995 as one of their most emotional years, when a talented 13-year-old Belgian competed the week after her mother had died. It was Justine Henin, a future legend of the game – and despite her personal trauma, she managed to make it all the way to the final that year, losing only to Croatia’s Mirjana Lucic.

It’s no wonder, then, that Tarbes holds long-lasting treasured memories for players who go on to professional careers. Renaux beams with pride as he describes Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters sending good luck text messages from Australia to the Petits As players, and 1994 champion Juan Carlos Ferrero later calling his time here his best memory as a junior. This year, one family is making a particularly special return. Way back in 1985, Canada’s Philippe Le Blanc became the first North American competitor at the tournament – again, scouted by the organisers. Two years later, his brother Sébastien followed. Both boys were coached by their father, Guy. This year, Sébastien and Guy are both back – but this time, from a different perspective, as Sébastien’s own son Alexandre is playing. Sébastien, an Olympic and Davis Cup player for Canada during his professional career, reminisces:

“This was such a boost for me, it was probably the start of everything. It hasn’t changed much – all the people, tournament directors and volunteers, are the same. They want the kids to have a good time, and the families also. The Tennis Europe Junior Tour taught me about hard work: make sure you play hard every time. We got lots of matches, met a lot of kids from all over the world. If you stay in Canada, you always play against the same kids and you never know how good you are.”

It’s to this end that Alexandre, who reaches the final of the consolation event, is now based in Barcelona.

“And in Europe you play on the red clay, which is a lot better than North American hard courts to learn the basics of the game,” notes Guy.

In fact, so impressed were the Leblancs by Les Petits As that it even inspired them to try their hand at setting up their own tournament, a 12 & Under team competition in Canada, which already counts much-touted talents such as Taylor Townsend and Françoise Abanda amongst its former players.

“We remembered how this was for us, and we tried to do the same thing,” says Sébastien.

Evidently, a successful tournament doesn’t just create the stars of tomorrow – but is key to the growth of the sport worldwide.

Amélie Mauresmo and Justine Henin, Australian Open 2006

Interview by l’Equipe, translation by Tennis Buzz:

Yesterday Amélie Mauresmo was the biggest fan of her protege, Andy Murray, but ten years ago she captured her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne. Flashback.

Q: Do yo remember exactly your route to victory here in 2006?

Ouch! (Thinking…) I start with the Chinese Sun. Right? Then Emilie (Loit), and Krajicek who retires. And in the fourth round, who was it? That’s right, Vaidisova! And then I defeat Patty (Schnyder) in the quarterfinals, Kim (Clijsters) in semis and Justine (Henin) in the final.

Q: Do you remember the score of the shortened final?

6-1 2-0 30-0.

Q: After the final, everybody critizices Henin’s attitude. Mats Wilander says “Even crawling she should have finished the match”. But you don’t say anything.

I only do realize that the next day. And suddenly I feel bad. And I say to myself: “But wait, she did that! She only had 3 or 4 more games to play. And she stopped.” Yet she was not dying. You can not do that.

Q: Have you forgiven her?

It took time. When I was still playing, not really. She stole me a moment. And moments like that are rare.

Q: Did she apologize?

No.

Q: Your coach Loic Courteau was annoyed because all the emotion could not get out. And you?

Yes, of course, but I was so sure this tournament was for me. Withdrawal or not, in my opinion I was better.

Q: Did you have the same feeling, six months later in Wimbledon, that the tournament was for you?

Not at all. I was not playing as well at Wimbledon. The final was not good. In Melbourne, before the final, I had no doubt, no stress. Unlike the Wimbledon final, where I hardly slept the night before.

Q: From when did you feel that superiority in Melbourne?

Not immediately. But after my win against Vaidisova and my big match against Patty. Against her, even I won often, it was always tough. But that time, I did dominate her physically and tactically.

Q: Would you have won the tournament if you had not win the Masters in 2015?

It’s related. The Masters are a real trigger. I experienced these Masters a bit like my first Grand Slam. I surfed on that confidence. The winter that following, during preparation, I played like crazy. The practice sessions (lots of them with Alexandre Sidorenko who won the boys’ title the same day as Mauresmo) were amazing.

Q: Yet a few weeks before the Masters, you had reached a low point.

The match agasint Mary Pierce at the US Open had killed me (a 6-4 6-1 loss in the quarterfinals). After the match, I thought “I can’t do it against hard-hitting players. I don’t return as well as these players. I can’t do it.” Mary, Davenport, Venus, Serena, it was going too fast for me. Even Justine who could do more things chose that playing style. Was there some place for me? For change of pace, variation? I asked myself a lot of questions. We thought about it with Lolo (Courteau) and we decided to go to the net even more. But I play two disastrous tournaments, Moscow and Zurich. I win one or two games a set (she loses 6-1 6-1 to Schiavone in Moscow and 6-2 6-0 to Srebotnik in Zurich). I keep questioning myself: I’m 26 and except Novotna, there is no female player winning a first Grand Slam title at that age.

Q: You do not have always known you were a champion

That’s right. I fought against a lot of things related to our sporting culture in France, to our approach to winning or rather our non-approach.

Q: Also fight the “She has a nice game” cliché

Technically, my forehand was not really good, but people said: “She has a nice backhand, she varies her shots, she volleyes”. Efficiency is not a priority in France. I can feel the difference with Andy (Murray) and even before when I worked with Azarenka.

Q: By winning in Melbourne you also get rid of another weight, that of being labeled as the world number one who had not won a Grand Slam. Was it important?

I was eager to put an end to this discussion. But it was not a suffering.

Q: At the 2006 Australian Open, three players retire against you, but you also had big problems..

The morning of my match against Vaidisova, I wake up and I’m panicked. My neck is blocked, I’m upset. I call Michel (Franco, her physiotherapist), he massages me, he does what he can. I play suffering, serving at 130 km/h, but Vaidisova commits lots of unforced errors. That year it is very hot. In the semi finals, with Kim, we play a big match, very physical. We play indoor because it is 40 °C. She twists her ankle because she is tired; back to the hotel, I fainted. The next day I did not come to hit at the stadium.

Q: In 1999, you had also reached the final in Melbourne..

Yes, but in the game, I do not really know why. My game was very instinctive. I do not even know how I was playing back then. In 2006 my game was in place.

Q: You keep good memories of the Château d’Yquem 1937 you drank to celebrate your victory

In fact we drunk it during the summer of 2007. It was excellent.