Clijsters shifts from low to great U.S. Open expectations

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Last year, Kim Clijsters came to the U.S. Open with no expectations, an unknown factor in a grand slam event she had won the last time she played it.

Kim Clijsters of Belgium celebrates a point against Greta Arn of Hungary during the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in New York August 30, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Her New York City fortnight ended with her curly-haired 18-month-old daughter Jada cavorting with the silver winner’s trophy on center court and Clijsters reigning as a shining example to working mothers everywhere.

Times change, and the Belgian defender now looks to salvage a disappointing grand slam season by retaining her crown.

“For these last few weeks I’ve been preparing for the Open. I’ve been trying to get my game back,” the 27-year-old Clijsters told reporters after her 6-0 7-5 first-round victory against Hungarian Greta Arn on Monday.

“Just to come out there and defending my title, I’ve never been in that position,” said Clijsters, who stretched her U.S. Open winning streak to 15 in a row.

Clijsters began her win streak by capturing the 2005 U.S. Open, but missed the next year’s event due to a wrist injury and then quit tennis for two years to start a family.

She became the darling of Flushing Meadows with her rousing run in 2009, but this year’s slams have told a different tale.

Clijsters started the year by falling in the third round at the Australian Open, missed the French Open due to injury and was eliminated in the quarters at Wimbledon.

“It’s been frustrating that I haven’t been able to play the French and playing that horrible match at the Australian Open (losing to Russian Nadia Petrova) to me was frustrating.

“Then at Wimbledon, I’ve never been more disappointed after a loss than that match against (Russian Vera) Zvonareva.”

Clijsters has won in Brisbane, Miami and Cincinnati but it is the slams that define her season.

“Because I don’t play that full schedule, I really want to do well in those bigger tournaments,” she said.

Clijsters said that rather than feel pressure to perform in New York, it is a nervous energy she brings onto the court.

“It’s not nerves where your arm feels like it’s 50 kilos (110 pounds),” she said. “It’s not like that, like in my first few tournaments when I came on tour in those big matches.”

Her next opponent will be unseeded 19-year-old Australian Sally Peers, who may be subject to those body-numbing nerves when she steps in against Clijsters.

“I think she’s a stronger girl, who likes to hit the ball. A younger girl,” Clijsters said, thinking back to her youth. “They’re always eager. They are ready to go, and they have nothing to lose.

“I think that’s something that obviously you have to be careful of,” Clijsters said about not being overconfident. “You have to play every match like it’s a final.”

Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by Frank Pingue