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Clijsters, Mauresmo seek breakouts

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NEW YORK -- Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo both hail from Europe, own multiple WTA Tour titles and have been ranked No.1. What they also share, uncomfortably, is the label of best female players never to win a Grand Slam tournament.

"They would be at the top of most lists," says ESPN's Pam Shriver, who likewise failed to win a major in singles despite reaching the 1978 U.S. Open final as a 16-year-old. Clijsters and Mauresmo could take big steps toward erasing that dubious distinction with quarterfinal wins at the U.S. Open.

In a marquee matchup tonight, No.4 seed Clijsters of Belgium faces off against reigning Wimbledon champ and No.10 seed Venus Williams. On Wednesday, No.3 seed Mauresmo of France takes her all-court game against No.12 Mary Pierce for a spot in the semifinals after Mauresmo defeated No.19 Elena Likhovtseva of Russia 6-1, 6-4.

It's no secret the lack of a Grand Slam is a huge monkey on their backs.

"That's what everyone talks about when they're playing in a big match," says world No.1 Lindsay Davenport, who can relate to their frustration. The 29-year-old American, who advanced to the quarterfinals with a straight-set win against Nathalie Dechy of France on Monday, owns three Grand Slam titles but has not won one since the 2000 Australian Open.

The 22-year-old Clijsters, with 27 tour titles and more than $10 million in prize money, is more accomplished than Mauresmo, and thus, the more surprising to go Slam-less.

The sturdy 5-8 Belgian reached her first Grand Slam final at the 2001 French Open as a teen and lost 12-10 in the third set to Jennifer Capriati.

She later reached three out of four Grand Slam finals, losing each time to Belgian rival Justine Henin-Hardenne, including the 2003 U.S. Open, despite reaching No.1 that year.

After missing most of last year with a wrist injury that required surgery, Clijsters has re-emerged with a shored-up forehand, a bigger serve and a fearlessness to go with her signature leg-splitting move while retrieving balls from the backcourt.

"It's just a matter of going for my shots all the time," says Clijsters, who has won a tour-leading six titles in 2005, including three this summer to win the US Open series. "I'm a little more mature after everything that happened last year."

At 26, Mauresmo is battling mounting expectations and Father Time. The versatile player with the flowing one-handed backhand burst onto the tennis scene by reaching the 1999 Australian Open final, where she lost to Martina Hingis.

She has won 17 titles and reached four Grand Slam semifinals since -- including a five-week stint at No.1 last year -- but has been unable to get over the hump and make another final. Her best finish in New York was the 2002 semifinals, where she lost to runner-up Williams.

This year, she consulted with 1983 French Open champ Yannick Noah to help her improve her mental toughness.

"I really felt I was putting a lot of pressure on myself before, and I feel that this is coming off as I grow up as a tennis player," she says.

Shriver says the good news for Clijsters is she is still young. Mauresmo can look to examples such as Jana Novotna and Goran Ivanisevic, both of whom won their only Grand Slam titles late in their careers.

"Both Kim and Amelie still have time, but Kim has more of it," Shriver says.

Each faces a stern test to make the final four.

Mauresmo has won their last four meetings and holds a 4-2 career mark against Pierce, but the power-hitting 2005 French Open runner-up is particularly dangerous on hard courts.

Two-time Open titlist Williams has dominated Clijsters in recent years, with a 6-3 head-to-head record. But the Belgian won their last encounter at July's Bank of the West Classic final in the Palo Alto, Calif., though Williams said she was exhausted after winning Wimbledon and playing Fed Cup without a break.

Clijsters says she feels capable of shaking the Slam monkey because many recent Slam winners "are girls that I've beaten before, or never lost to."

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