Twenty-four hours after Serena Williams had cast a cloud over tennis with her foul-mouthed tirade against a line judge, Kim Clijsters' smile lit up Arthur Ashe Stadium. As the 26-year-old Belgian played with Jada, her 18-month-old daughter, following her US Open triumph here on Sunday night, the contrast with the previous evening could not have been more stark. Everyone loves Clijsters. Her fellow countrywoman, Justine Henin, may have been the more successful player when they were competing against one another for the game's greatest honours, but the French speaker often gave the impression that she was not enjoying herself, whereas a smile was never far from the face of the Flemish-speaking Clijsters.
The only sadness for the former world No 1 after her 7-5, 6-3 final victory here over Caroline Wozniacki was that her father, who died in January, was not there to share her joy.
Having beaten the two Williams sisters on her way to the final, there could be no doubt that Clijsters deserved her second Grand Slam title, having won her first on the same court four years ago, which was her last appearance at this tournament. Wozniacki, a 19-year-old Dane who had never previously gone beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam event, proved she has the temperament for the big occasion but fell short in terms of power. The new world No 6, who has won more matches than anyone else on the women's tour this year, is an indefatigable retriever who chases every ball, but whether she has the shots to trouble the game's best remains to be seen.
Clijsters' return to the top of her sport – having come here without a world ranking because she had played only two tournaments this year, the Belgian was placed at No 19 in yesterday's updated list – could hardly have come at a better moment. The latest challengers to the supremacy of the Williams sisters had been falling by the wayside and if there was an ambivalence towards the Americans because of their apparently dismissive attitude to lesser competitions on the women's tour, those negative feelings will have been underscored by Serena's behaviour here on Saturday.
Nevertheless, while Clijsters' comeback is an extraordinary story considering that she retired two years ago to start a family – she is the first mother to win a Grand Slam title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley triumphed at Wimbledon 29 years ago – the fact that she has been able to enjoy such instant success does not say much for the depth of talent in the women's game. It would be impossible to imagine, say, Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic spending two years away from the game and then returning to win a Grand Slam title in their third tournament back.
The women's game, however, should be grateful to be in so much better shape than it was at the start of the year. Maria Sharapova, the sport's biggest female attraction, is also back after shoulder surgery and Wozniacki, the face of a fashion range launched by Stella McCartney earlier this summer, is providing a challenge to the Russian in terms of glamour. The Women's Tennis Association is not averse to promoting good looks when trying to sell its sport. It helps, too, that Wozniacki wears a smile as wide as Clijsters'.
When Clijsters announced her return earlier this year, her interest in playing again having been rekindled by the invitation to take part in the exhibition matches to test Wimbledon's new roof, the Belgian said she would see how her three-tournament comeback went before deciding on her longer-term plans. She admitted here that she had never dreamed her return would bring such immediate success. "I just wanted to come here, get a feel for it all over again and play a Grand Slam so that starting the next year I wouldn't have to go through all the new experiences again," she said.
She now plans to play at least one more tournament this year, an indoor event in Luxembourg next month, and has her eyes set on playing the Australian Open in January. "Australia is definitely part of the schedule," she said. "I'll train hard again at the end of this year and then up to Australia. But to look further ahead than that is something I don't even want to do yet. I just want to take it one period at a time and see what happens after that and what you learn from those trips." What had she made of the current state of the women's game? "There are so many new players out there who have a great talent, but maybe they're still missing that consistency a little bit. On any good day they can beat a lot of top players. I don't think women's tennis has anything to worry about.
"Wozniacki is a great player. She's someone who is going to have a really great future. She's a smart girl. I think she played some smart tennis today. That's something I think we want to see. It's not just the hard hitters. She's really someone who thinks out there."
Clijsters' father, Leo, a former Belgian international footballer, died in January aged 52, but the new champion said she and her husband still felt his presence. "It's very comforting, but also a little bit sad," she said. "There have been so many things that have happened in these last few weeks, or even in the last months, where we've felt: 'OK, he's watching over us'. That's just a nice feeling to have."