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09.12.10

A Fairytale Win for Kim Clijsters

The Belgian tennis star dominated the U.S. Open this weekend, nabbing the women's singles title against notoriously frustrated Vera Zvonareva. Joshua Robinson on her remarkable journey.

The date of Kim Clijsters’ last defeat at the U.S. Open sounds like it has to be wrong. September 6, 2003, seems like an eternity ago, especially in the knee-busting, career-slashing world of professional tennis. Yet seven years ago was indeed the last time anyone beat Clijsters on the blue acrylic of Flushing Meadows, a final lost to fellow Belgian Justine Henin.

Since then, the 27-year-old has refused to follow the traditional tournament-after-tournament, win-some-lose-some career arc of most tennis players. In 2005, after winning her first Open, she suddenly retired from tennis to start a family. Four years later, new family securely in place, she un-retired and came back to win another Open title, making her one of the sport’s favorite feel-good stories. Clijsters’ celebrations with her curly-haired 18-month-old daughter, Jada, seemed to be the perfect ending.

But on Saturday night, she showed the story wasn’t over. She dispatched Vera Zvonareva, 6-2, 6-1, in under an hour to claim her third championship in New York. And once again, she capped it by running to her husband and her toddler—even though Jada didn’t necessarily know what was going on.

“I don’t think to her it matters too much whether I win or lose still,” Clijsters said. “She sees a trophy and she knows that a trophy is a part of winning. She kind of connects the dots like that. But I'm not going to go tell her, 'Mommy won the US Open.'”

Clijsters’ success places her in an exclusive club of female players who have won two Grand Slam tournaments after becoming mothers. There’s only one other member, the Australian grande dame of the 1970s, Evonne Goolagong. And it was Goolagong, coincidentally, who was on the wrong end of the last U.S. Open women’s final to be won so emphatically—she was trounced 6-3, 6-0 by Chris Evert in 1976.

Her win came at the expense of Zvonareva, whose impressions on the New York crowd have not always been equally heart-warming.

Clijsters’ success places her in an exclusive club of female players who have won two Grand Slam tournaments after becoming mothers.

This time, Clijsters’ resounding victory came at the expense of Zvonareva, whose impressions on the New York crowd have not always been so heart-warming. When the last match at her 2009 Open campaign began turning against her, Zvonareva flashed an ugly temper, throwing a near-tantrum on the court. She smashed a racket, punished her knee, and ripped off the bandages on her leg. By the end of that match, she was even crying between points. This time around, she seemed to have conquered her emotions, spending the tournament with a broad smile under her happy blue eyes—only as long as things were going well. When they finally didn’t on Saturday night, the cracks began to show.

After losing the first set, she puffed out her cheeks and ripped a ball across the court. Soon after, seemingly on the verge of tears, she was shouting at herself in Russian—which made her sound that much angrier—and repeatedly introducing her racket to the blue acrylic court.

“I was just trying to find ways to pump myself up, change something up,” a much calmer Zvonareva said after the match, adding, “I just needed to get some energy from something.”

Clijsters, playing at her favorite tournament on the circuit, where she says the surface suits her game and the color of the courts suits her vision, needed no extra incentive to pull off a graceful win—though the $2.2 million check she took home helped.

Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.