Niceness getting in Clijsters' way?

It's a bit absurd this question that is being asked of Kim Clijsters these days: is she too nice? As if being pleasant, and charming, and dignified, all of which she is, is some sort of sporting misdemeanour.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Justine Henin-Hardenne, the US Open champion, with Kim Clijsters, the runner-up. Clijsters has been rewarded, as World No. 1, for playing reliable tennis month after month. But excellence is more than consistency. It is also about themoment, and raising one's game to meet it. What matters for a tennis star is a Grand Slam victory, which Clijsters has not achieved so far. — Pic. AP-

It's a bit absurd this question that is being asked of Kim Clijsters these days: is she too nice? As if being pleasant, and charming, and dignified, all of which she is, is some sort of sporting misdemeanour.

But, indeed, it is being suggested that her niceness is a handicap, that her civility is a shackle, that this is a hard-bitten, rough-housing, take-no-prisoners women's tour, but she treats it like an audition for the Sound of Music.

But this is bizarre, for if decency is a weakness then what is she doing at No.1?

Of course, maybe she shouldn't be No.1. Indeed, how can a woman without a Grand Slam title be No.1 in the world, and how can she win a Grand Slam title if she is so darned decent?

Don't be fooled by that smile, being Kim Clijsters is harder than it looks. She's played consistently better tennis than anyone else this year, and done it all with it a smiling grace, but at the end of it, we are certain of only one thing: WTA umpires have been taught the Heimlich Manoeuvre because she chokes so much.

Simply put, Kim Clijsters, if you believe enough people, lacks killer instinct, that champion's edge. Ah, that Serena, she could drown a puppy, and Justine, well, she'd never brake for a few ducklings on the road. But Kim? She makes Julie Andrews look sinful.

Worse, she is apparently not selfish, and self-centred, and egotistical enough, and undoubtedly, this is a BAD thing. You have to wonder, what sort of upbringing did she have? Her father's a soccer player and surely he, who knows about things like hacking down a player and then screaming "Didn't touch him, referee," should have known better.

Clearly, Clijsters read too much Hans Christian Andersen when she was young. And saw too little of Jimmy Connors. In Jimmy's world, that bug near your feet on court, you don't flick it away, you don't call a ball boy to pick it up, you step on it. Then turn your shoe. Then win the point.

Clijsters steps on no one. It's why everyone loves her; it's why she's won a WTA sportsmanship award; it's why she loses to Serena in Australia after being 5-1 up in the third set and then comes into the press conference still wearing a lottery winner's smile.

She could have said some body part was paining, that the sun blinded her, that Hewitt bought her a smaller diamond than she wanted. Anything. Instead, she says: "Serena took the risks, she came to the net and just went for it. All credit to her."

Last fortnight was no different. Asked after the US Open final about Justine Henin-Hardenne's wondrous semi-final with Jennifer Capriati, Clijsters could have grudgingly said: "Yeah, it was good." Better still, she could have said she slept right through it. Instead, she warbled: "Oh, it was great. I'm sure it will be one of the best matches of this year maybe of the US Open, the whole history, I think."

The woman's downright embarrassing. In her three biggest matches this year (Australian semis, French and US finals) she's fumbled around like a novice pickpocket, handcuffed by nerves, but she's still setting a standard in affability that's hard to emulate.

But is niceness why she chokes, is it some fundamental flaw? Is compassion getting in her way, civility tripping her, courtesy eroding her resolve? It seems too convenient. After all, to say that if Clijsters smiled less and snarled more she'd win when it matters doesn't explain Stefan Edberg. To say that her generosity gets the better off her during big matches doesn't explain Pat Rafter.

But others might contend that Rafter, and Edberg, would have won more if their personalities were as rough as the calluses on their hands, that their instinctive decency as men became sub-conscious impediments to victory?

It's a hard argument. Johann Olav Koss, whose Olympic Aid helps children of war-torn countries was not just a tireless ambassador of goodwill but a speed-skater of immaculate skills and won four Olympic gold medals. Yet Ivan Lendl, scarcely tennis' favourite man, who probably thought goodwill should be restricted to what sponsors did for him, was the world's most significant choke artist in his time.

It sounds too glib this conviction that nice and ruthless can't go together, that champions are altogether disagreeable people. How do we explain Adam Gilchrist, a man of considerable charm, and some grace, yet an unblinking competitor? Or Leander Paes, for that matter, courteous off court, savage on it? Or Ian Thorpe? Or triple jumper Jonathan Edwards? Or are they exceptions, are men and women of great accomplishment that little more self-centred, more driven to win, more pained by losing, than Clijsters?

Whatever, Lendl's experience, his losing of his first four Grand Slam finals and then winning eight Slams, provides valuable lessons. First, that this killer-instinct can possibly be learnt. Secondly, Lendl's big turnaround came at the 1984 French Open when John McEnroe led him by two sets and a break in the fourth and then lost, proving everyone chokes.

Perhaps Clijsters is just a nervous person, not yet convinced of her place in the tennis universe. Perhaps she will find a way to dam her confidence rather than letting it seep away, to remain free not freeze during tight situations, to be carried forward by her will not restrained by fear.

Clijsters' journey promises to be a remarkable one, for she is in that achingly uncomfortable position where she is the No.1 player in the world but not considered the best player in the world.

The computer measures consistency, over a particular time frame, in neat little numbers; it has no grasp of history or occasion. Clijsters has been rewarded for playing reliable tennis month after month, for keeping her mind alert and body sharp tournament after tournament. It is a commitment, a discipline and a fitness that deserves recognition. But excellence is more than consistency. It is also about the moment, and raising one's game to meet it.

In the end, unfair as it is, no one cares about the little tournaments. For tennis and golfers what matters it is the Grand Slams, for athletes the Olympics, everything else is secondary. By that measure, Clijsters is not the best.

Perhaps she is not good enough yet. Perhaps she will carry off Lleyton and marry him, and then go on to star in Mary Poppins. One thing's for certain, she will win a big one. Eventually. Just so that we can take that clich�, "nice girls finish last," and finally tear it up. Of course, Kim being Kim, she'll ask us to put the pieces in the dustbin once we're done.