It was as though she had never been away. Four years after her last appearance at Flushing Meadows, Kim Clijsters strode back into Arthur Ashe Stadium yesterday and powered to a thumping 6-1, 6-1 first-round victory over Viktoriya Kutuzova on the opening day of the US Open.
Clijsters, who retired from tennis two years ago in order to start a family, returned to competitive tennis last month, playing in tournaments in Cincinnati and Toronto. The 26-year-old Belgian said earlier this summer that she would decide on her longer-term plans at the end of this tournament, but is already talking about making a fully fledged return.
"She's playing top 10 tennis, there's no doubt about it," Martina Navratilova said after Clijsters took less than an hour to reach the second round.
In her first two comeback events Clijsters beat four top 20 players – Svetlana Kuznetsova, Victoria Azarenka, Marion Bartoli and Patty Schnyder – and lost only to Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic, the world No 1 and No 4 respectively.
Nevertheless, a Grand Slam tournament always represents a major step-up in terms of public interest, even if there were huge open spaces in the 23,000-capacity main stadium for the opening match of the tournament, which was played in warm sunshine. It was quite a change from Clijsters' last appearance on the court, when she beat Mary Pierce in the 2005 final to claim her only Grand Slam title.
With her sunny disposition and attacking game Clijsters is hugely popular here and the crowd soon had plenty to cheer. The former world No 1 won the first seven points, her big forehand pulling Kutuzova from side to side, and quickly went 5-0 up. The 21-year-old Ukrainian, No 79 in the world rankings, looked nervous and rarely troubled Clijsters, who struck the ball cleanly, served well and moved smoothly around the court.
Clijsters admitted afterwards that she had been nervous. "I still feel like I can improve, but I'm definitely comfortable where I am right now," she said. "It's always a matter of just trying to work on those little things, assessing every match that I play and looking at where I feel I can improve."
Next up is the No 14 seed, Bartoli, who lost to Clijsters in straight sets in the first match of the Belgian's comeback last month. Bartoli yesterday dropped only one game in beating Paraguay's Rossana de los Rios, who is one of only two other mothers in the 128-strong draw, with Austria's Sybille Bammer. Clijsters, who has been travelling this summer with her husband and their 18-month-old daughter, will be the first mother to claim a Grand Slam title since Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980 if she wins here.
Serena Williams made a successful start to the defence of her title but gave a patchy performance in beating a fellow American, Alexa Glatch, 6-4, 6-1. Williams made 19 unforced errors, only three fewer than her opponent.
Roger Federer, chasing a sixth successive US Open title, beat Devin Britton, an 18-year-old American wild card, 6-1, 6-3, 7-5. With the victory Federer became the first player in history to win $50m (some £30.7m) in prize-money.
Britton, who is the world No 1,370 and had played only one previous match at tour level, said the crowd was "100 times bigger" than any he had played in front of before. He was pleased with his performance, particularly as he had found Federer's forehand "just crazy. I tried to keep it away, but sometimes I just hit it there just to see it. I'm going to have great dreams about it. It's so pretty," Britton added.