Kim Clijsters shows off her hardware to daughter Jada after winning the U.S. Open on Sunday.
(Elise Amendola/AP Photo)
NEW YORK – Little Jada Clijsters Lynch reached out her index finger, gave her mother's U.S. Open trophy a gentle tap, then toddled off down the service line of Arthur Ashe Stadium while jiggling her 18-month-old legs for the benefit of the photographers.
And suddenly, the acrimony, venom and ugliness that had stained the same arena 24 hours prior began to fade into the memory banks.
The purity and innocence of the love between mother and child, of seeing Kim Clijsters celebrate the unlikeliest of triumphs with her infant daughter, was perhaps the only thing strong enough to cleanse the deep wounds Serena Williams inflicted upon the sport of tennis and the U.S. Open on Saturday evening.
A day after Williams' outburst at a line judge and just hours after the American issued a statement that didn't once mention the word "sorry," Clijsters proved that nice gals don't always finish last and that champions don't always come with a jagged edge.
In this unforgiving city of bustle and attitude, Clijsters brought a softer side, with her extraordinary tale of returning better than ever after more than two years in self-imposed tennis exile.
This was no fluke result, no freak outcome brought about by a bizarre confluence of circumstance. The Belgian stared down the best en route to the final and met every challenge.
Both Williams sisters came and went, Venus with some grace, Serena with that profane outburst, before the final obstacle of future star Caroline Wozniacki was met and conquered Sunday, 7-5, 6-3.
That Clijsters could return to the sport and in the space of a few months shed cobwebs from her game to this extent is astonishing. Some will assert that if typifies weakness in the women's game, but this is really about one woman's strength – of conviction, talent and dedication.
Her play against Serena Williams was exemplary, against Wozniacki it was solid and calm and good enough to negate both her opponent's weapons and a swirling wind.
"What a fairy tale it is," said Clijsters' coach, Wim Fissette. "Having a baby, coming back, it really does seem like a fairy tale.
"But this is the goal we set for this. We didn't just want her to come back and be OK, our target was to win the U.S. Open."
Clijsters' approach was unconventional. She did not practice on her rest days, preferring instead to spend time with her daughter and husband Brian Lynch.
As a result she looked fresh every time she took to the court. As each round came and went, the confidence grew, while family life provided a balance that prevented too much dangerous introspection.
In an odd sense, Clijsters was a defending champion of sorts, having won her only previous Slam in her last appearance in New York in 2005. Injury ruled her out the following year, retirement kept her away thereafter.
"This has been so exciting for me," she said. "I just wanted to start three tournaments just to get back into the rhythm of playing tennis and get used to the surroundings.
"I don't have words for this. I am just glad I got to come back and defend my title from 2005. Winning the first one has helped me to keep my nerves at the end."
Wozniacki had led 4-2 in the first set before Clijsters dug deep, cutting out the clutter of unforced errors that plagued her early on and making the Danish teenager stretch further. Clijsters took the opener 7-5, and established an early advantage in the second that held throughout.
The final point saw Wozniacki desperately retrieve a ground stroke from the back of the court to send up a high, swirling lob. Clijsters didn't flinch, spiking away the decisive smash before crumpling to the ground in disbelief.
There followed a climb to the players' box, a long round of hugs, a gracious speech and that wonderful scene with her daughter.
It gave the women's event the final image it deserved.