KEY BISCAYNE, Fla., April 2 -- It's hard for Kim Clijsters to determine her lowest point. Was it watching professional tennis from her hospital bed as she recovered from major wrist surgery last June? Was it spending two months in a hand-to-elbow cast last summer -- not once, but twice, after a devastating relapse? Was it dropping from No. 2 to No. 133 in the rankings? Or was it October's emotional end to a five-year relationship with ex-fiance Lleyton Hewitt?
Suffice it to say, Clijsters endured a rough year. But on a gray, rainy, blustery day in the women's final of the Nasdaq-100 Open, Clijsters put a stamp of authenticity on what has been an increasingly remarkable rehabilitation, defeating Russian teen Maria Sharapova, the world's third-ranked player, 6-3, 7-5, for her second straight tournament victory.
Kim Clijsters, whose career was in doubt after wrist surgery, hits a return in her second straight tournament victory.
(Marc Serota -- Reuters)
Two weeks after defeating Lindsay Davenport in Indian Wells, Calif., Clijsters solidified her standing as the hottest woman in the sport with her 14th straight victory, a fact that seemed to amaze even herself. Her first words to television commentator Mary Joe Fernandez after the match, which was interrupted by a 54-minute rain delay, summed up the situation.
"You can wake me up now," Clijsters said. "It's really hard to believe."
If last year was a nightmare, this has been a dream to savor. Unseeded entering this tournament, Clijsters was forced to toil with the little-known players on the tour, facing four top-10 players, including No. 2 Amelie Mauresmo in the semifinals. Even so, she didn't lose so much as a set.
Clijsters, seemingly surpassed last year by a host of young Russian stars including Sharapova, will move to No. 17 in the rankings two weeks after having leaped 95 spots to No. 38. She has changed course, and fast.
"It was like a big circle to be back here," Clijsters, 21, said. "Even this one is harder to believe this week. I don't know what to say. All of this has been an incredible four weeks."
Saturday's victory provided more than a return to prominence for the Clijsters, born in Bilzen, Belgium. Though she's played in four Grand Slam finals, she's never won one. This win, technically, is the biggest of her eight-year career.
It didn't come easily. Sharapova, last year's Wimbledon champion, proved a feisty and tenacious opponent and the swirling winds bothered both players. Every time it looked as if Clijsters would break away in the second set, Sharapova used her corner-hitting groundstrokes to strike back. Clijsters broke Sharapova in the first game; Sharapova broke right back. Clijsters broke again to go up 3-2; Sharapova broke back again.
Serving for the match with a 5-4 lead, Sharapova once again broke Clijsters's serve with a backhand winner. Clijsters, however, broke Sharapova's next serve and, with a second chance to serve out the match, did the job.
"I think the biggest surprise was that this was her 14th match, and I didn't feel like she was physically fatigued," Sharapova said. "You could see her running after every ball and it giving it all she's got out there. She was recovering very well."
A full recovery, though, has been a long time coming. After developing pain in her wrist at last year's Indian Wells tournament, Clijsters played with a brace for a while. On June 12, she had surgery to remove a cyst and repair tendons, which led to her first two-month stint in a plaster cast.
"That was probably the toughest time," she said. "Once it came out of the plaster, you think, 'How the hell am I ever going to play tennis again?' There are no muscles there. You can't even move your finger."
Clijsters, however, stuck to a disciplined rehabilitation regimen and, after a 20-week absence, got back on the court near the end of the season. But despite advancing to the semifinals of a tournament in Belgium, she reinjured the wrist. Back she went into the cast. Doctors told her, she recalled, "it could be over."
"That," she said, "is tough to hear."
There were more difficult words when she and Hewitt, the world's second-ranked man, broke up. Clijsters, though, had plenty of time to manage her emotions. She said last year's difficulties helped her mature on and off the court.
They've also helped her, she said, enjoy the jackpot she's already hit this season.
"I realized how much I missed it," she told Fernandez and a crowd of 11,749, moments after the match. "I think I'm enjoying my time on the court because I didn't have it for a long time."
What will she do to celebrate? Among other things, she will return to the hospital. She said she wants to have an MRI on her wrist to ensure that it's healthy for the upcoming clay-court season.