Clijsters was indeed the biggest winner in '03

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Sure, Serena Williams and Justine Henin- Hardenne hogged up all the Grand Slam titles in 2003, but Kim Clijsters was truly the big winner when you consider the almighty dollar.

Yes, Serena captured Wimbledon and the Australian Open by winning a pair of all-Williams-sisters finals. Yes, Henin-Hardenne humbled Clijsters in a pair of all-Belgian championship matches at the U.S. and French Opens. And Yes JH-H finished as the first-ever Belgian year-end No. 1. But Clijsters set a record by becoming the first female player to eclipse $4 million in one season, which she did last week by peppering Amelie Mauresmo in the lucrative title match at the season-ending WTA Championships in L.A. In the process, Clijsters picked up the biggest single paycheck in women's sports history, at $1,000,030, with the extra $30 representing the 30th anniversary of the WTA Tour. The previous high was the $1 million prize Henin-Hardenne collected in Flushing in September.

Speaking of the WTA's historic 30th celebration in L.A., former and current greats Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and the Williams sisters were no-shows? Are these women not millionaires several times over as the result of playing on the circuit? How disappointing it was to the Billie Jean Kings, Chris Everts and Martina Navratilovas of the world.

Kim Clijsters
Kim Clijsters became the first woman to earn more than $4 million in one season.
Back to Kimmy.

Clijsters' performance in L.A. was of the repeat variety, as the amicable star upended Serena in the '02 title match at the Staples Center.

Combined with her doubles prize money, the popular Clijsters capped her year with $4,091,594 to outdistance JH-H ($3,527,264) by more than a half-million dollars. And, FYI, a mostly-inactive Serena pocketed $2,249,038 while barely lifting her racquet. She doesn't play all that much to begin with, and didn't play at all after Wimbledon (in early July) due to a knee injury, which required what wound up being season-ending surgery. Serena's big sis Venus also played her last tennis of '03 at Wimby, where younger sis posted a victory in yet another all-sibling final between the American superstars.

Back to Kimmy.

The 20-year-old Clijsters, despite failing to win a "major" yet again, reached at least the semifinals in 20 of her 21 events this year and piled up a tour- best nine titles in a tour-high 15 title matches. She met JH-H in six of those finals, with Henin-Hardenne prevailing four times en route to a lofty eight championships in her, likewise, career year. JH-H was a brilliant 8-3 in her '03 finals, but her most eye-catching victory came in a semifinal when she shocked Serena to reach her first-ever French Open title match, which also turned out to be the first-ever all-Belgian Grand Slam final.

The 21-year-old Henin-Hardenne soared into at least the semis in 17 of her 18 tournaments, with 11 resulting in finals appearances.

JH-H may have had the bigger wins in '03, but, again, you can't overlook Clijsters' pile of cash. The last time I looked, it was money that makes the world go 'round...not titles.

Only four women accounted for this year's eight Grand Slam final berths, as Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne, Serena and Venus filled all the coveted spots to separate themselves from the "second tier" of ladies (Mauresmo, Davenport, Capriati).

The match of the year came at the U.S. Open, where Henin-Hardenne battled not only Jennifer Capriati, but severe leg cramps as well in an amazing 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-4) come-from-behind victory at Ashe Stadium. The 3-hour, 3-minute epic featured a 75-minute third set and was loaded with great shot-making and 14 service breaks. The snake-bitten Capriati served for the match twice, led 5-2 in the third set, and 10 times was within two points of her first-ever U.S. Open final.

Following the grueling match, JH-H was given IV fluids to treat dehydration and her status for the final the following night was in serious jeopardy. Henin-Hardenne did, however, return to the court the next night and somehow beat Clijsters in the title match in easy 7-5, 6-1 fashion.

Henin-Hardenne headed to the season-ending Championships having to reach the semifinals to supplant her "friend" Clijsters atop the rankings, which she did by going 2-1 in the first-ever round-robin format at the event. JH-H lost her chance to exceed $4 million for the year when she bowed out against Mauresmo in the semis at Staples. Keep in mind that the watered-down field in L.A. did not include the powerful Williams stars, not to mention Lindsay Davenport (alright, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned Davenport). But you know the tourney is hurtin' just a bit when the likes of Ai Sugiyama are in the field.

Serena, Venus and Davenport all plan on returning to action in January, at which time Serena will likely be the favorite to repeat at the Aussie Open.

Serena only appeared in seven WTA events this season, winning four of 'em, including Grand Slam titles numbers six and seven. Venus, meanwhile, competed in only six tournaments all year and captured just one title, by beating Clijsters in a final in Clijsters' native Belgium (Antwerp). Serena only lost three matches all year (35-3), with two of the setbacks coming against Henin- Hardenne, while the other came at the hands of the oft-injured Mauresmo, who, as a matter of fact, was the only player to beat both Serena and Venus during the year. Henin-Hardenne, by the way, was a perfect 2-0 versus Serena for the season in what you would have to consider the most-intriguing rivalry in the women's game, especially after JH-H's weasel-like tactics at the French (acted like she didn't signal for a timeout just before a botched serve from Serena).

Venus (11th) is not in the top 10 for the first time since 1998, and Serena did not repeat her performance as the 2002 WTA Tour player of the year, despite completing the "Serena Slam," which saw her secure four straight Grand Slam events (just not in the same campaign) when she prevailed in Melbourne way back in January.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the rise of the Russians this season, as the proud nation finished with two of the top eight (Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva), four of the top 13 (Nadia Petrova, Vera Zvonareva), five of the top 21 (Elena Bovina) and six of the top-27 (Lina Krasnoroutskaya) players in the world. Granted, none of 'em reached a Grand Slam final, but they did account for five major quarterfinal berths and one semifinal spot (Petrova at French Open). So keep an eye on this talented pack.

In looking forward to '04, I really don't see anyone outside of Serena, Henin- Hardenne or perhaps Clijsters nailing down a Grand Slam championship. A healthy Venus always has a shot, but right now she doesn't seem to be healthy and hasn't worn a Slam crown of any kind since the '01 U.S. Open.

The first major of 2004 (the Aussie Open) will get underway January 19 in Melbourne.

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