NEW YORK | This time, Kim Clijsters felt free to celebrate.
A day after earning a berth in the U.S. Open final amid controversy, the Belgian mom fell tearfully to the ground after trouncing Caroline Wozniacki 7-5, 6-3 to become the first unseeded women’s champion in tournament history.
The win completed an improbable run for Clijsters, who won the U.S. Open title in 2005 but only recently had emerged from a two-year hiatus from the game.
“I can’t believe this has happened,” Clijsters said. “It still seems so surreal. … It wasn’t in the plan. I just wanted to come back and get a feel for it. It just feels great, but it’s confusing in a lot of ways because it went so quickly.”
Clijsters arrived in the final after beating second-seeded Serena Williams on Saturday in a match that was as famous for its tabloid fodder as its athletic drama. Williams, the defending champion, lost after an official handed her a code violation on match point for profanely berating a line judge who had called a foot fault. USTA officials announced Sunday that Williams would be fined $10,500 and said she is under investigation to determine whether further penalties are necessary.
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Though the negative buzz of that semifinal match lingered, it did not diminish the accomplishments of Clijsters, who showed a veteran’s persistence in keeping after Wozniacki, a plucky counterpuncher who made an unlikely run of her own in beating two seeded players en route to the final.
“She doesn’t have any pressure because she already achieved what she wanted to,” Wozniacki said. “She has the family. She has everything. So she’s playing because she thinks it’s fun and because she likes it. So I think maybe she’s an even better player now than she was before.”
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Eighteen months ago, Clijsters was comfortable at home, having just given birth to a baby daughter. She hadn’t played since 2007 when she announced an abrupt retirement from tennis.
“Tennis wasn’t even on my mind at all,” Clijsters said. “I was a new mom and just going through those experiences.”
But an invitation to play in an exhibition at Wimbledon sparked renewed passion for the sport, and she spent much of the summer preparing for the U.S. Open, playing in two hardcourt warmup tournaments where she played well. By winning, she became the first mother to win a Grand Slam title since Evonne Goolagong captured Wimbledon in 1980. Clijsters’ daughter, Jada, was in attendance at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday night and got an embrace from her mother after the match.
Clijsters entered the tournament on a wild card but was handed no favors with her draw. Still, she trounced five seeded players on the way to victory, and the win over Wozniacki was her third over a top-10 opponent.
Sunday’s match was characterized by strong baseline play from both players, leading to some long rallies that topped more than 20 shots. While Clijsters was the more powerful hitter of the two, Wozniacki showed some of the defensive skills that carried her through the tournament, winning several key points after lofting desperation lobs.
Clijsters staked a 2-0 lead in the first set, but Wozniacki won the next four games, saving three break points to go up 4-2. Clijsters evened the match at 4-4 before the two players traded breaks of serve. At 6-5, Clijsters broke Wozniacki at love to win the set.