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Clijsters has won 14 straight matches

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- From corner to corner Kim Clijsters
ran, sliding into the splits with a cheerleader's zeal as she
retrieved shot after shot, keeping alive yet another rally -- and
her comeback.
The tenacious Belgian earned a second consecutive title Saturday
in her remarkable return from a career-threatening wrist injury,
beating Maria Sharapova 6-3, 7-5 in the final of the Nasdaq-100
Open.
The tournament was just the third in Clijsters' latest comeback
from the injury, which required surgery and forced her to miss much
of last year. She has won 14 matches in a row, including the Indian
Wells title two weeks ago, and beat six top-10 players in her past
nine matches.
"It has been an incredible four weeks," Clijsters said. "I'm
just going to try to enjoy it as much as I can."
To Sharapova's chagrin, her superior power was negated by
Clijsters' exceptional mobility. More than once the No. 2-seeded
Russian hit an apparent winner, only to have a scrambling Clijsters
extend the point -- and eventually win it.
"You just have to expect that she's going to get every ball
back," Sharapova said. "Running from corner to corner is like a
piece of cake for her."
Ranked No. 1 for 12 weeks in 2003, Clijsters slipped to 133rd
before Indian Wells but will climb to 17th next week. That ensures
she'll be seeded at the French Open, where she's a two-time
runner-up.
"Obviously from today's performance she's a top-five player,"
Sharapova said.
Winning Indian Wells and Key Biscayne back to back suggests as
much. The only other woman to achieve the feat was Steffi Graf in
1994 and 1996.
Top-ranked Roger Federer, hoping to join Clijsters as a
first-time Key Biscayne champion, plays Spaniard Rafael Nadal in
the best-of-five men's final Sunday. Federer has won 17 consecutive
finals and is a heavy favorite, as Nadal acknowledged in broken
English.
"If he don't play very, very well, and I play one of my best
matches," the 18-year-old Mallorcan said, "I think I have a
little bit chance, no?"
Nadal's odds are probably no worse than those of Clijsters
becoming the first unseeded women's champion in the 21-year history
of the tournament.
She was sidelined in March 2004 by an injury to her left wrist
that hindered her two-handed backhand. She underwent surgery in
June to repair a torn tendon and remove a cyst, then spent two
months in a cast.
"Once you come out of the plaster, you think, 'How am I ever
going to play tennis again?"' she said. "You have no more muscles
there. You can't even move your fingers."
Clijsters returned to the tour in September, played three
matches and snapped the capsule around the tendon in her wrist.
That led to another two months in a cast, and doctors said her
career might be over at age 21.
"That's tough to hear," she said. "You don't want to think
about that."
Now the wrist is a little sore but otherwise fine, she said. And
her footwork might be better than ever.
While gusty wind made for some ragged exchanges in the final,
Clijsters repeatedly chased down shots beyond the reach of most
players. Her father played soccer and her mother was a gymnast, and
those bloodlines were evident every time she pursued a ball.
In the category of don't-try-this-at-home are the splits that
are a staple of her game, allowing her to stretch into the corners
and yet reverse direction quickly. She used the maneuver on the
first point, made an improbable retrieval and extended the rally to
10 strokes until Sharapova hit a shot wide.
"Those points maybe make your opponent think a little bit,"
Clijsters said.
On break point in the sixth game, she skidded into the left
corner and then the right chasing balls and sent both back.
Sharapova then hurried an overhead slam and pushed it wide to fall
behind 4-2.
Clijsters' ability to improvise paid off again on a pivotal
point in the second set. When Sharapova hit a slam, Clijsters
managed to lob it back over her head and won the point for a 4-3
lead.
"The biggest surprise is it was her 14th straight match, and I
didn't feel like she was physically fatigued," Sharapova said.
"I'm not at the point where I can do that. She can play all day
out there."
Clijsters played a shaky game serving for the match at 5-4 but
earned another chance by breaking back. When Sharapova sent a
return long on the third championship point, a teary-eyed Clijsters
had another trophy for her rapidly expanding collection.