- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Kim Clijsters wants to party like it’s 2005.

Four years removed from her only Grand Slam title and two years after her abrupt departure from competitive tennis, the Belgian blonde has returned to the U.S. Open with her sights set on another deep run.

Clijsters gave birth to a daughter, Jada, in February, and spurred by the challenge of training for an exhibition doubles match at Wimbledon, surprisingly ended her brief retirement a few months later.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, I have to get in shape for this,’ ” she said of the match with Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi and Tim Henman. “Then about two or three weeks into it, that feeling came up within myself, and I kind of didn’t say anything, kind of kept going to practice and worked hard with my coach and my fitness trainer and just went through my routines.”

Clijsters expects to do more than just show up, smile at the crowd and exit early, happy for one last hurrah at Flushing Meadows.

In August, Clijsters used wild-card berths at two major hardcourt events to serve notice that she’s back.

Clijsters beat 12th-seeded Marion Bartoli and French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in Cincinnati before falling in the quarterfinals to the world’s top-ranked player, Dinara Safina.

The next week in Toronto, she beat ninth-seeded Victoria Azarenka before losing a long three-set match to the No. 5 seed, Jelena Jankovic.

Clijsters trounced Ukrainian Viktoriya Kutuzova 6-1, 6-1 in her opening-round match Monday in New York, setting up a second-round rematch against Bartoli on Wednesday.

“I’m not going to be here and go on holidays wherever I go and just try to have fun and spend time with the family,” she said. “When you’ve been up there, that’s something you’ve experienced - those emotions and feelings and playing those big matches. That’s what you do it for.”

Aggressive play and a cheerful demeanor made Clijsters a fan favorite, and she and fellow Belgian Justine Henin spent much of 2003 trading places at the top of the world rankings.

She also held the top spot briefly in 2006 and was a runner-up in four Grand Slams before finally breaking through with a convincing win in the U.S. Open final in 2005.

Her retirement in May 2007, just shy of her 24th birthday, hurt a women’s game already suffering from a lack of quality depth - a deficiency exacerbated by the abrupt retirement of Henin last year.

Henin also might be poised for a comeback - media reports in Belgium said she is training for a reappearance on tour. Clijsters said she has no insight into the plans of her compatriot.

Clijsters’ competitors say they’re glad - if more than a little surprised - to see her back on tour.

“I have to say, I was a little shocked,” said Serena Williams, an 11-time Grand Slam winner, the No. 2 seed and a potential semifinal opponent for Clijsters. “I expected her to do well, but it looks like she took a week off. I’m happy, and it makes me actually want to work harder. I mean, this girl’s good. She hasn’t lost a step. She hasn’t lost anything.”

A championship at Flushing Meadow would require Clijsters to play seven matches over the course of two weeks - a grueling test she hasn’t faced in two years.

But Clijsters said her off-court workouts are more intense than any match she would play. Moreover, she took advantage of the chance for extensive training rather than squeezing it in during the short offseason as most pros are forced to do.

“The fact that she’s such a good athlete in my mind helps her chances,” former pro and CBS Sports analyst Mary Carillo said. “She looks pretty much the same to me. It really helps to be a jock, and that’s what she is.”

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