'It's about balancing': Defending US Open champion Kim Clijsters is mother 1st, athlete 2nd

Make no mistake: Kim Clijsters considers herself a mother first, a tennis player second.

Yes, the Belgian is the defending champion and seeded No. 2 at the U.S. Open, making her a popular pick to win the year's last Grand Slam tournament, which begins Monday.

And, yes, she considers herself obligated to help promote her sport by offering to do things such as throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a major league game, which was on her schedule for Friday night when the New York Mets hosted the Houston Astros.

None of that, though, is as important to Clijsters as her 2½-year-old daughter, Jada. Who could forget the way the toddler pranced around on the blue court in Arthur Ashe Stadium after Mommy beat Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark in last year's U.S. Open final?

There are moments when tennis simply must be set aside, when her family takes precedence over on-court preparation.

"It's about balancing; just listening to yourself. I have days when ... I want to spend time with Jada, and I don't want to go to practice, and I want to make sure I'm there for her," Clijsters said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And luckily, I'm not the type of athlete who, if I don't do it, I'm going to be panicking."

There are plenty of players, the 27-year-old Clijsters explained, who feel compelled to adhere strictly to whatever workout or practice routines are established for them by a coach or trainer.

She, on the other hand, is OK with taking an afternoon off, if that's what she thinks she needs to do.

"I'm like, if I don't do it today, it's not like my game won't be the same tomorrow," Clijsters said, gesturing with her left arm, the one that bears a tattoo of Jada's name on the wrist. "In that way, I'm probably more easygoing. I live in the moment and see how I feel."

With a racket in her hand, Clijsters is at her best on hard courts. All three of her tournament titles in 2010 came on that surface, including at a U.S. Open tuneup event at Cincinnati this month.

"I've always felt more comfortable on this surface, not just this year, but even when I was 14, 15, 16, when I started playing my first few summer series in America," Clijsters said. "I don't know what it is, but I feel like I can move better, and I can see the ball better. Everything comes easier."

She owns a 14-match winning streak at the U.S. Open, taking the title the last two times she entered, in 2005 and 2009. Clijsters missed the tournament in 2006 because of a wrist injury, then was away from the tour for about 2½ years while she got married and had a baby.

In one breath, Clijsters says she doesn't think about numbers like that 14-0 record. Yet in the next, she says she knows that if she plays well, she "can beat anybody out there."

Clijsters was treated for a cramp near her left hip during her most recent match, a three-set loss to Wimbledon runner-up Vera Zvonareva in the quarterfinals at Montreal a week ago. But Clijsters says she's healthy, thanks in part to acupuncture.

If she truly is able to move at her best, Clijsters will be expected to go far the next two weeks, especially against a field missing three-time U.S. Open champion Serena Williams and two-time winner Justine Henin, both sidelined by injuries.

"Because Serena's gone, and Henin's out, the women's side is ... open for taking," said CBS analyst John McEnroe, who won seven Grand Slam titles. "Kim has positioned herself well in terms of what she needs to do to defend her title."

Given that Clijsters already stepped away from the game once, it's not clear — even to her — how much longer she might be trying to defend titles.

She said she hopes to play until the 2012 London Olympics, where the tennis competition will be held at the All England Club, the site of Wimbledon.

"I've never played in the Olympics, and that's something I would like to try. But then, on the other hand, we would also like to have more children," Clijsters said with a chuckle. "So, I'm kind of like, 'We'll see.'"