NEW YORK - No. 1 Kim Clijsters sprinted to her right, bent her knees and stretched as far as she could to make a forehand return midway through the match she was dominating yesterday afternoon. Then she reversed direction and sprinted as fast as she could to her left, bent her knees again and took another stab at the ball with her backhand.
The ball sailed high and deep and landed as a winner, just catching the baseline to set up one of her six break-point chances against Laura Granville in the second round of the U.S. Open.
Clijsters, who does not look like an intimidating force on the court, was cool and efficient as she ushered Granville to an early vacation with a 6-1, 6-1 victory.
"I anticipated exactly what I got," Granville said after the match. "She's obviously playing great this summer and I know Kim is just an amazing player and athlete.
"She's hitting the ball so hard and running so fast. It's unusual for a woman's player to be able to do both at the same time so well."
Clijsters' returns whipped across the court with such ferocity, they barely skimmed the surface before fleeing out of Granville's reach.
It's intimidation of its own kind.
And this from a sweet-smiling blond Belgian who says even if it means never winning a Grand Slam tournament, "I'd rather be thought of as nice rather than mean."
Clijsters, 20, is ranked No. 1 in the world. She has gotten there by playing in more matches than anyone else, winning six tournaments and racking up more rankings points. There is some criticism because even though she has reached Grand Slam finals twice, she is the first woman in 28 years of rankings to be No. 1 without winning a Grand Slam.
"A Grand Slam title would be nice," Clijsters said. "But it takes a lot more than just saying that. It's definitely going to be tough."
There are certainly a number of ranked players who will try to stop her. Like No. 2 Justine Henin-Hardenne, her countrywoman who beat her in the French Open final in June. And No. 3 Lindsay Davenport, who advanced to the third round last night with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over Maria Elena Camerin. And No. 6 Jennifer Capriati, who at 27 may be running out of time to win her country's main event.
But without the Williams sisters - Serena (the 2002 champ) and Venus (who has won here twice) - playing this Open, most eyes are focused on Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne. And many believe Clijsters needs this title to justify her No. 1 status.
Clijsters shrugs it off, saying neither her ranking nor others' expectations of her will change the way she plays.
"I've heard people say she should have a Grand Slam title," said Granville, who was playing in her fifth Open. "But Kim has been really close. She's knocking at the door. I don't think it should be considered a big deal. She's earned her ranking points."
The rise of Clijsters to No. 1 caught people by surprise. It came while Serena Williams was injured and off the tour. And no matter who wins this tournament, it will be viewed as the one the Williams sisters didn't play.
Clijsters does not seem bothered. Instead, she is enjoying her moments at the top.
She says it's a new feeling for herself and her country. Clijsters and Henin-Hardene brought home Belgium's first No. 1 ranking and Grand Slam title.
For her part, Clijsters said it is as much fun to bring recognition to Belgium as to herself.
"I love the way in big matches how they announce where we're from and where we live," said Clijsters, who lives in Bree, Belgium. "I think that's great."
Clijsters laughed a little when she arrived here last week and saw her name at the top of a Grand Slam draw sheet for the first time.
"It was a little funny," she said. "It was definitely a happy feeling, too. But they still had to check my bags and stuff [at security]. It's nice to see the draw, to see your name on top of the list there. It's definitely a sheet of paper that I will take home, yeah."
At the end of these two weeks, she'd also like to take home the championship trophy. But don't ask her to dwell on it.
"I'm trying my best," she said. "I'm trying to be as prepared as possible. But that's not what I think of. I'm just trying to win my match every day."
In men's action, U.S. Davis Cup player James Blake eliminated No. 27-seeded Mariano Zabaleta, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-2.
Thomas Enqvist, Sweden, def. Albert Portas, Spain, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.
Mark Philippoussis (20), Australia, def. Janko Tipsarevic, Serbia-Montenegro, 6-2, 7-6 (4), 6-4.
Jarkko Nieminen, Finland, def. Nicolas Mahut, France, 6-2, 6-4, 7-5.
Nicolas Massu, Chile, def. Gaston Gaudio (30), Argentina, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.
Younes El Aynaoui (22), Morocco, def. Alex Kim, United States, 7-5, 7-6 (5), 6-3.
Wesley Moodie, South Africa, def. Albert Montanes, Spain, 7-6 (3), 6-2, 6-2.
Roger Federer (2), Switzerland, def. Jose Acasuso, Argentina, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3, 2-0, retired.
Anthony Dupuis, France, def. Mikhail Youzhny, Russia, 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.
Rafael Nadal, Spain, def. Fernando Vicente, Spain, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Carlos Moya (7), Spain, def. Scott Draper, Australia, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-6 (6).
Jan-Michael Gambill, United States, def. David Sanchez, Spain, 7-6 (3), 6-2, 6-2.
Jiri Novak (10), Czech Republic, def. Mario Ancic, Croatia, 3-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2.
Jean-Rene Lisnard, France, def. Magnus Norman, Sweden, 6-2, 6-2, 6-7 (4), 0-6, 7-6 (4).
Sargis Sargsian, Armenia, def. Amer Delic, United States, 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 7-5.
James Blake, United States, def. Mariano Zabaleta (27), Argentina, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-2.
Amelie Mauresmo (5), France, def. Stephanie Cohen-Aloro, France, 6-2, 6-2.
Tamarine Tanasugarn, Thailand, def. Patty Schnyder (18), Switzerland, 6-4, 6-3.
Elena Likhovtseva, Russia, def. Maria Vento-Kabchi, Venezuela, 7-5, 6-3.
Maria Kirilenko, Russia, def. Anca Barna, Germany, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5.
Fabiola Zuluaga, Colombia, def. Myriam Casanova, Switzerland, 7-5, 6-3.
Daniela Hantuchova (9), Slovakia, def. Julia Vakulenko, Russia, 6-0, 7-6 (5).
Kim Clijsters (1), Belgium, def. Laura Granville, United States, 6-1, 6-1.
Svetlana Kuznetsova (27), Russia, def. Petra Mandula, Hungary, 6-3, 6-3.
Nadia Petrova (19), Russia, def. Denisa Chladkova, Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-2.
Vera Zvonareva (13), Russia, def. Ashley Harkleroad, United States, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1.
Meghann Shaughnessy (17), United States, def. Maja Matevzic, Slovenia, 6-3, 7-5.
Alicia Molik, Australia, def. Conchita Martinez (12), Spain, 7-5, 6-4.
Paola Suarez (24), Argentina, def. Milagros Sequera, Venezuela, 6-1, 6-0.
Melinda Czink, Hungary, def. Lisa Raymond (28), United States, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Amanda Coetzer (14), South Africa, def. Barbara Schett, Austria, 3-6, 7-5, 6-2.
Lindsay Davenport (3), United States, def. Maria Elena Camerin, Italy, 6-2, 6-4.