10 Years Ago: Clijsters, unranked and unbowed, triumphs in New York

10 Years Ago: Clijsters, unranked and unbowed, triumphs in New York

The Belgian pulled off one of the most impressive feats of her career in 2009.

In 2003, Kim Clijsters carved out a unique spot in tennis history when she became the first woman to ascend to the top spot in the rankings without having won a Grand Slam singles title: an impressive feat, but one that still had an asterisk attached to it. While reaching No. 1 is the dream of many players, the majors are often considered the stepping stones to defining a legacy.

Clijsters finally fulfilled that goal at the 2005 US Open, when, after losses in her three prior Grand Slam finals, she capped a dream tournament by defeating Mary Pierce in the championship match. En route to the title, she also beat Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova, rallying from a set and a break down in the quarterfinals against the former and advancing in three sets versus the latter in the semifinals.

Two years later, at the age of 23, though, Clijsters—seemingly still in her prime—walked away from the game, with injuries having taken their toll and a desire for more from life off the court.

The Belgian fulfilled that goal, marrying an American basketball player—Brian Lynch—shortly after retirement and having her first child in 2008. After that, a desire to return to the court re-emerged, and by the summer of 2009, Clijsters was in full comeback mode.

At her first event in Cincinnati, she beat three Top 20 players in a row before world No. 1 Dinara Safina stopped her in the semifinals. Clijsters tacked another Top-20 win to her record the following week by knocking Victoria Azarenka out of Toronto.

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Entering those tournaments by way of wild card, Clijsters’ was granted entry into her third event in a row by the same method. And this appearance would be the true test: the last major of the year, the US Open.

Making her first appearance at the tournament since that title-winning run back in 2005 and unranked since she hadn’t played enough events, the former world No. 1 opened up play against the young Ukrainian Viktoriya Kutuzova. Clijsters only dropped two games as she won her first match at the major level since the 2007 Australian Open.

In the second round, she faced world No. 14 Marion Bartoli, whom she’d just beaten in the first round of Cincinnati. The Frenchwoman won a set this time, but couldn’t break down Clijsters’ defenses and was worn down by the end. Another victory, this time over her countrywoman Kirsten Flipkens, put her into the second week of the tournament and brought her record over the summer to 8-2.

Next up would be one of her fiercest rivals.

With a 4-6 record against the two-time US Open champion Venus, Clijsters went into the match as a decided underdog. She played nothing like it, though, winning the first set 6-0. Venus turned the tables on her right away, taking the second by the same scoreline. The decider was a closer affair, but Clijsters came through it to clinch it 6-4. A quarterfinal win against the 18th seed Li Na set her up for another blockbuster match against one of the game’s greatest players.

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Serena Williams, the second seed and defending champion, hadn’t dropped a set over the course of the tournament. That streak was broken when Clijsters claimed the opener 6-4. 

The pressure grew more intense in the second set, and as Serena served down 5-6, 15-30, the match took on a whole different note as the American incurred a code violation, then a point penalty, putting Clijsters through to the final against Caroline Wozniacki.

The Dane, seeded ninth, was playing in her first Grand Slam championship match, having never made it past the fourth round of a major. With a similar baseline style to her more accomplished opponent, Wozniacki put herself in a winning position in the first set, serving for it at 5-4. Clijsters’ experience—and perhaps Wozniacki’s lack of—helped her rally and take the opener 7-5.

In the second set, Clijsters gained a crucial break and serving for the title at 5-3, struck an overhead winner on match point against the teenager to clinch one of the most unlikely championship runs in the history of the sport.

With her new family there to help her celebrate, Clijsters’ daughter Jada took to the court with her. After all, the toddler helped her earn a spot in the record books as the first mother to win a Grand Slam title in almost 30 years.

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