Kim Clijsters Wins, Saves the U.S. Open

Before the tournament began, Kim Clijsters, fresh from retirement and early motherhood, complained that women in the game today don’t have a clue about how to grind out a win.

“I remember Justine [Henin], she was one who could mix her game up even if she was not playing well,” she said. “Someone like [Amelie] Mauresmo, even Venus and Serena, were hard hitters, they can still work their way through matches even when they’re not playing their best tennis. I’m not saying everybody’s like that, but I haven’t seen a lot of girls change their game up a little bit.”

Early in tonight’s match, Clijsters was having a world of problems with Caroline Wozniacki. The Dane was hitting moonballs. She was playing ugly. She didn’t have enough pace on the ball for Clijsters. Like a knuckle-ball pitcher who’s dumping it down the middle of the plate at 60 m.p.h., Wozniacki was lobbing it, and Clijsters was whiffing.

Clijsters lost four consecutive games at one point in the first set, and it looked like we might have a competitive match. Then she figured it out. Clijsters slowed everything down, and reminded us why she was a champion. She took the match right out of the hands of Wozniacki one her way to a 7-5, 6-3 victory. Though the match was sloppy, it was an emphatic statement on how the women’s game has regained its form. We’ve got a true champion to root for again.

“Women’s tennis is back,” Billie Jean King told us two days ago when we asked her about Clijsters. Thanks to Clijsters’ play in the first week–and Melanie Oudin’s, of course–we made the same argument.

Remember, before her premature retirement, Clijsters was regarded as a choke artist. Before she won the Open in 2005, Clijsters had that ugly moniker “Best Player Never to Win a Major.” It was only a year after she finally won that she decided to retire.

Now those heavy-hitters on the women’s tour–Elena Dementieva, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina–can take a valuable lesson from Clijsters’ story. (Maybe, for starters, have a baby!).

Her run at this year’s Open was riveting from start to finish. In the second round she lost the opening set to the feisty Frenchwoman, Marion Bartoli, but Clijsters took control of the match and dominated the next two sets. When we watched it, it seemed like Clijsters had the goods to go all the way. Marion Bartoli told us after the match that Clijsters was an instant contender to win the Open. The only problem, Bartoli said, would be Venus and Serena.

Clijsters had to get through both of them, and like Justine Henin in 2007, she did so. Before Serena gave away the match with her spectacular meltdown last night, Clijsters played stirring tennis. She dictated every point. She moved Serena from side to side. Clijsters moved better and looked a lot more fit than Serena, celebrated as the fittest player in the women’s game. What will be forgotten, sadly, is how much Clijsters dominated that match.

And perhaps most wonderfully of all, Clijsters just seems so content with her life right now.

“Kim’s so happy,” said Ms. King in our interview. “She’s the happiest I’ve ever seen her.”

On the first day of the tournament, we spotted Clijsters and Roger Federer in the hallway outside the players’ locker rooms chatting about their babies.

“Once she got to 10.5 months, she started walking!” said Clijsters to Federer, who was nodding thoughtfully.

When we passed her in the hallway, she always gave us a bright smile, for no particular reason. Two days ago, during a rain delay, Zack and I spotted Clijsters and her husband, Brian Lynch, in the player’s dining room. They were slapping each other playfully. They were laughing. They hugged.

Before her retirement we knew Clijsters as the nicest player on tour. Now, with her second championship, she’s a true champion. It’s very good to have her back.

Kim Clijsters Wins, Saves the U.S. Open