It was late for an 18-month-old child not to be tucked up in bed, but when little Jada grows up she will be able to tell the world that she was there. With her daughter watching from the stand, Kim Clijsters beat Caroline Wozniacki here last night to win the US Open and become the first mother for 29 years to win a Grand Slam title.
Clijsters won 7-5, 6-3 in an hour and 33 minutes to complete one of the most remarkable comebacks in tennis history. The 26-year-old Belgian last played in a Grand Slam tournament at the 2007 Australian Open, having retired two summers ago to start a family, and had arrived here having played only two tournaments since making her return last month.
She needed a wild card to play – Goran Ivanisevic, who won Wimbledon in 2001, is the only other player who has won a Grand Slam title with a wild card - and started the tournament without a world ranking, having not played in enough events to earn one. The former world No 1 will jump straight back into the top 20 when she is given a ranking in this week’s updated list.
If the fact that Clijsters could win a Grand Slam title in such circumstances says much about the current quality of women’s tennis, her victory was also a tribute to her determination to make a success of her return. Her interest in competition having been rekindled by the invitation to play in the exhibition matches to mark the opening of Wimbledon’s new roof earlier this summer, she has worked tirelessly over the last six months to recover her fitness.
Having knocked out both Williams sisters on her way to the final, there might have been a temptation for the Belgian to consider that she had achieved the hardest part of her task, but Clijsters gave Wozniacki the greatest respect. The 19-year-old Dane has won more matches than anyone on the women’s tour this year, although this was the first time she had ever gone beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam event.
Wozniacki, who will climb this week from No 8 to No 6 in the world rankings, has been described as a female Andy Murray. Like the Scot she is a great retriever and counter-puncher who moves quickly around the court and has a strong backhand. Although she lacks any major weapons and can look uncomfortable at the net, her consistency and athleticism wear down most opponents.
Clijsters, nevertheless, had too much firepower for her. Hitting 36 winners to Wozniacki’s 10, she was quick to pounce on anything short. While Wozniacki got plenty of balls back and made Clijsters work hard for her points, the Belgian stuck to her task.
Wozniacki made an edgy start, losing the first two games, but quickly found her stride. It was soon Clijsters who was misfiring, particularly on her backhand, as the Dane won four games in succession to take a 4-2 lead. Holding serve, however, was always a problem for Wozniacki and she was broken three times in a row.
At 5-4 and 30-15 Wozniacki was just two points away from winning the first set, but Clijsters broke back and, crucially, held serve in the following game, a lovely stop volley evidence of her growing confidence. When Wozniacki served to stay in the set at 5-6 she played a nervous game. At 0-40 a big Clijsters forehand forced an error and the Belgian was on her way.
Wozniacki held on until dropping her serve to love in the sixth game of the second set after Clijsters had taken the first two points with assured passing shots. In the past Clijsters has shown nerves when the finish line has approached, but here she held firm, despite losing the first two points when serving for the match at 5-3.
At 30-30 Clijsters cracked a forehand winner into a corner and she finished off the match in style with a simple put-away behind another big forehand. She sank to her knees in celebration and after embracing Wozniacki she climbed up into the stand to be with her entourage. After being presented with the trophy, her husband and daughter joined her on the court, with Jada evidently loving all the attention.
The first mother to win a Grand Slam title since Evonne Cawley at Wimbledon in 1980, Clijsters is a hugely popular winner here. Her engaging smile and bubbly character have made her a favourite around the world, but particularly in the United States.
That is partly down to the fact that her husband is an American basketball player, but her record on these courts is also a factor. Since the 2003 final here, when she lost to her fellow Belgian Justine Henin, Clijsters has lost only one match at Flushing Meadows. Her victory here in 2005 – which was her last appearance at Flushing Meadows - was her only previous Grand Slam title.
“I don’t have words for this,” Clijsters said after the match. “I’m just glad that I got to come back and defend my title from 2005. This has been so exciting for me.”
Wozniacki paid credit to Clijsters, whom she described as “a great girl”. She added: “She played a great match and deserved this trophy.”
A bright future beckons for the Dane, whose parents are Polish. During the presentation ceremony she thanked her supporters in English, Danish and Polish (her parents moved to Denmark from Poland). At 19 she is the youngest player in the world’s top 20 and will learn much from the experience.