Clijsters’ comeback dream rolls on at U.S. Open

It was one of those stories that takes on a life of its own.

On paper, Venus Williams, the No. 3 seed and former champion, should have beaten Kim Clijsters, the new mother who was supposed to be just finding her way back onto the tour. But somehow the momentum tilted the other way. Venus walked onto Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday with a knee strapped and hurting; Kim walked on with a spring in her step, simply thrilled to be back.

That’s not to say the nerves didn’t kick in before Clijsters completed a roller coaster of a win, 6-0, 0-6, 6-4 to reach the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. When she found herself 15-40 down as she served for the match, she admitted she was shaking.

“I’m not even going to tell you what was going on in my mind,” she said. “My arm felt like 50 pounds or more. But I just told myself ‘Look, don’t give it away like that. Just try to play aggressive tennis and let her come up with a good shot to win it.'”

Which is what she did. And at the end, the tears came.

“I don’t think it was about getting into the second week of a Grand Slam,” she said. “I think it was the emotions of that last game especially, and the crowd and everything. I think it just all built up and just came out as soon as it was over, after that ace. Yeah, it just felt so good. Just seeing my family and friends in the box and my coach and everything. It was very special.”

Four months ago a comeback for Clijsters was the last thing on her mind. Then she got the call to play in a roof-testing exhibition on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, She played with Tim Henman against Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf and suddenly she found the competitive juices flowing again.

“Before I started practicing for that exhibition, I never thought I was going to be back. Never, ever did I think about it, even.”

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Even though Venus would have hoped it could have been someone else making way for the Belgian’s passage through to the quarterfinals, she, like everyone on the WTA tour, has been glad to welcome Kim back into the fold. She always was a popular player, both with her peers and the fans and now, returning with an American basketball-playing husband, she has become the crowd’s favorite.

“I didn’t come back because I wanted to be embraced by the crowd,” she hastened to say when the subject of her popularity came up. “I came back because I wanted to play tennis, and good tennis. But it’s very special. Even when I’m walking around the city and stuff, I don’t know if it’s because I’m married to an American now, maybe that has something to do with it, but it’s very special.”

The match was strange. Venus, obviously feeling the pain in her knee, got off to a terrible start but turned the whole match upside down in the second set. It was only in the third that the match hit an even keel as both players began playing near their optimum level.

When pushed, Venus admitted she wasn’t able to play at 100% but added, “She played so well, hit a lot of deep balls. Just played really consistently and aggressively at the right times.”

So everything is set up for further advancement for Comeback Kim. Her next opponent will be the quick and talented Chinese player Li Na, who defeated Italy’s Francesca Schiavone 6-2, 6-3. Should she survive that, Clijsters will probably be heading for a semifinal meeting with Serena who should, on current form, offer a tougher set of problems than her sister. Serena powered her way straight through the elegant but somewhat helpless Daniela Hantuchova 6-2, 6-0.

Pennetta powers through: Later, the numerous Italians in the crowd had more to cheer as the much improved Flavia Pennetta, who became the first Italian woman ever to reach No. 10 in the world just a couple of weeks ago, survived six match points before turning the tables on Russia’s Vera Zvonareva to win 3-6, 7-6, 6-0.

At times, the side of the court looked like a casualty station because Pennetta required extensive work on her back and Zvonareva spent the latter stages ripping bits of bandage off both legs.

Pennetta survived because she kept telling herself to be aggressive and go for her shots. Tears welled in the Russian’s eyes as match point after match point was snatched from her grasp in a thrilling tiebreak. “She’s always like this. I know her.” Pennetta smiled. “She can cry on court and the next point she fight and play good tennis.”

But not good enough for Flavia, who will have to deal with Serena next.

Rafa moves on: Rafael Nadal occupied Arthur Ashe Stadium during the afternoon and needed to up his game before he could subdue his very aggressive compatriot Nicolas Almagro. The lower-ranked Spaniard has a magnificent follow through on his power-driven backhand and scored with it on numerous occasions during a tight first set but, in the end, Nadal just got too many balls.

Rafa has been suffering from various ailments of late — an abdominal problem seems to be the latest — and got a little touchy when asked about his injuries afterwards.

“No, I don’t want to talk about injuries. Sorry. I am a little bit tired to talk about injuries. I am here to try my best every day.”

Never much doubt that Nadal will do that, but the unanswered question is whether his best will be good enough to bring him the one Slam he has never one.

On current form, probably not. He will have his hands full in the next round with Frenchman Gael Monfils. Monfils engaged Jose Acasuso in such long rallies at the start of their encounter that the Argentine pulled up lame at the start of the third set to hand Monfils an abbreviated 6-3, 6-4 ,1-0 victory.

More winners: Fernando Gonzalez took out Thomas Berdych in straight sets; Marin Cilic, the No. 16 seed, defeated Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin 6-1, 6-4, 6-3; and there was another injury-ruined match when Frenchman Gilles Simon could not complete against Juan Carlos Ferrero, sending the Spaniard through to the fourth round 1-6, 6-4, 7-6, 1-0.

Even Juan Martin del Potro looked a little frail by his standards, as he needed to have his right forearm strapped during his match with Austria’s Daniel Koellerer. But that did not stop the formidable Argentine from progressing 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Dent bows out: The late match saw Taylor Dent return to a big stage for the first time in more than three years when he played Andy Murray on Ashe. The result was not what Dent was looking for — a 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win for the Scot — but he did not deny that this U.S. Open has been a huge step forward for him after his surgery.

“It’s nothing but positive for me,” he said. “But I hate losing. So what I’m going to take from it is, if I want to serve and volley against some of the best returners in the world, then I’m going to need to be a little more accurate with my first serve. He made it really tough for me to hold.”

Not bad for a man who spent the better part of eight months in bed recovering from two back operations in 2007. It’s great to have Taylor back. As for Murray, he needed to adjust to the demands of passing an all-out net rusher — such a rare breed — but once he had found his rhythm, he was able to offer the huge crowd a glimpse of why he has risen to No. 2 in the world.

Dent knows why. “He doesn’t miss,” he said. “He made it look and feel like I served underhand out there at times. I think he’s No. 1 in the world at breaking guys, so that makes sense.”

Sort of. Even though he felt he served below par, Dent still hit the 146 mph mark. You really have to know how to return to get that back.