With family on board, Clijsters back in the game

With the vast majority of its stars teetering this year, the women’s game needed a player to step up and challenge the ferocious and occasionally overly aggressive Serena Williams, who had won three of the last four majors.

It could have been one of the talented Russians (like Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina) or one of the enigmatic Serbians (Jelena Jankovic or Ana Ivanovic). But for a variety of reasons, none were up to the task on a consistent basis at the majors, much less at the U.S. Open.

So in stepped former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters, just 18 months past the birth of her daughter Jada and itching to get back to competition.

A daughter of a former soccer star, Clijsters was born to run, bred to compete, taught to lace the tennis ball. She returned to the tour in good shape, wiser, more aware of her weapons and her options on the court. She had few of the nerves that saw her lose four Grand Slam finals earlier this decade, and maybe a little bit more ambition.

And just like that in New York, down went seven-time Slam champion Venus Williams, down went the 11-time major titlist Serena Williams, and in the Sunday evening final, down went the ambitious Danish teenager Caroline Wozniacki, 7-5, 6-3.

The bold Belgian became the first mother since Evonne Goolagong at the 1980 Wimbledon to win a major.

“This is something that in my wildest dreams I could never imagine happening,” said Clijsters, who also won the 2005 U.S. Open.

Her comeback run went full circle in just six weeks, with Clijsters beginning the trip in Cincinnati with a tight loss to No. 1 Safina and ending it smiling broadly like only a new parent can watching Jada prancing around the court after the trophy presentation and playing with the sparkling silver trophy.

“It’s a surprise, but her level isn’t a surprise because she’s such a big talent who doesn’t need a year to get to her best level,” her coach, Wim Fisette, told FOXSports.com. “She needed a few matches, but I knew she could do it at the Open. She went every day to practice and then to play with Jada and she didn’t have the time to think about that she had to play Serena or a final tonight, because she was busy with Jada. It was perfect for her mind.”

It was Clijsters’ knowledge of the conditions and newfound love of the tight moments that brought her to the crown. In the final, she had to battle swirling winds and a backboard of an opponent, one who shared athletic genes. Like Clijsters’ dad, Wozniacki’s father played pro soccer and she too can run well and counter scoring barrages. Clijsters’ dad died last year with Kim at his side, but Clijsters could sense that his spirit was still with her.

“You feel his presence,” she said. “It’s not just me, it’s my sister (Elke), it’s (her husband) Brian. We very strongly feel his presence. That’s something that’s very comforting at the same time, but it’s also something that’s a little bit sad. There are things that happen, and I really believe in signs.”

With Clijsters erratic and a bit unsure of herself in the tough conditions, Wozniacki served for the set at 5-4, but was broken when she was forced into a forehand error. Clijsters then largely sped away, holding to 6-5 with a series of deep groundstrokes and then winning the set with a bone-crunching inside-out forehand.

The wind died down in the second set and with the first set in her pocket, Clijsters played more freely. She broke Wozniacki to 4-2 when the Dane erred on a backhand and although Wozniacki tried pushing at her a little more, Clijsters kept hammering away at Wozniacki’s weaker forehand side and it eventually broke down.

She won the match when she put away an overhead, then dropped to the ground in celebration and began to cry with joy. She climbed into the Friends’ Box to hug her husband, Brian Lynch, and the rest of her supporters

They were by her side when she began practicing at the start of the year and couldn’t run for more than 30 minutes at a time. They were there when she rapidly improved, on court and in the gym. They saw the belief grow inside that she could not only take on the quick kids like Wozniacki, but take down the once feared Williams sisters, who used to own her.

“Kim was always an unbelievable player,” Fisette said. “But she’s better now. She’s more complete, aggressive and became physically stronger. She felt she had more power because she was stronger, and hitting hard became like hitting normal. I kept telling her you can hit as hard as Serena, so just show it and overpower her. And she enjoyed it and when you are enjoying it, it’s easier to play well.”

With the victory, Clijsters will rise to No. 19 in the rankings. As long as the 26-year-old stays healthy, she’ll be a significant threat at the Slams.

Clijsters needed a break, and a chance to achieve her off-court desire to start a family. Now she’s back with a far better understanding of her possibilities on the court.

“At that time I didn’t look at it that way,” Clijsters said. “But maybe now I’ve become a lot more understanding of myself, you know how to deal when different emotions come up. Maybe that’s something when you’re young and you get nervous. … The situation with Serena, those are things when you’re 18-19 that can have a big impact on you. Now I have the experience of knowing how to deal with it and knowing myself a little bit better. I think that’s the biggest difference, is that I know myself a lot better than I did a few years ago.”