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Clijsters' comeback and Open title serve as memorable heart-warmer

NEW YORK -- Social scientists say Danes are the happiest people on earth, and Sunday night's women's championship between Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki and Kim Clijsters thankfully restored some mirth and merriment to a soggy U.S. Open.Roughly 24 hours after Serena Williams channeled her inner Keyser Söze by threatening to stuff a tennis ball down the throat of a lineswoman, Clijsters completed a fairy-tale run to the Open title with a 7-5, 6-3 victory. She becomes the first unseeded women to win the U.S. Open and a hero to working mothers across the globe.

"It still seems so surreal," Clijsters said. "In my third tournament back, I won my second Grand Slam. It wasn't the plan. I just wanted to come here and get a feel for it all over again, to play a Grand Slam so I could start next year without having all new experiences. It means the world, and I'm just so glad that I'm able to share it with my husband who wasn't here a few years ago, and with my whole group who is here. And also sharing it with our daughter, of course, is the greatest thing ever."

Clijsters retired in May 2007, citing injuries and the desire to start a family. She married American basketball player Brian Lynch, and their daughter, Jada Ellie, was born in February 2008. By winning her second U.S. Open (she won the 2005 title), Clijsters is the first mother to capture a Grand Slam singles title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon in 1980. Remarkably, it came in the Belgian's third tournament since returning from a 27-month retirement. Clijsters now gives the WTA Tour a parenting icon, joining the WNBA's Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker and Olympic swimmer Dara Torres as mothers kicking butt and taking names in the sporting arena."I have to get used to the situation a little bit but I look forward to having that role," Clijsters said. "Having a family and being an athlete, I think it's possible. ... To win a Grand Slam [as a mother] is obviously a big deal in women's tennis, and the history of women's tennis."

With Clijsters, the tour's Miss Congeniality, and Wozniacki, who hails from the happy land that birthed children's author Hans Christian Andersen, it was a final that had no foil, no foot faults and moved along merrily as if the two were playing at a club in Brussels or Copenhagen. At 10:58 p.m. in front of 23,351 wind-blown fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Clijsters ended a 13-stroke rally with an overhead smash, a fitting end to a smashing run here. She then climbed the stadium to the players' box and smooched Lynch, and soon the stadium's twin big screens showed their 18-month daughter bobbing up and down happily in a suite. Even Wozniacki could not help but smile. Young Jada eventually made her way to courtside to hug Mom, play with the championship trophy and ham it up for the photographers."I'm a mother and it warms my heart to see Kim being successful with her career and motherhood," said Stacey Allaster, the chairman and CEO of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. "She's happy in her life."

The WTA is happy with Clijsters' new life as well. Allaster said the tour had not yet spoken with the player or her manager about marketing her specifically to working moms, but you can bet that campaign is coming. Before the match, Clijsters was tossing a ball (and playing foosball) with her daughter in the players' lounge. Even Roger Federer found himself captivated by the Belgian's comeback."There again is a beautiful story," Federer said. "Right off the bat in Cincinnati when she came back, that was nice to see and gave you an idea of her almost being also one of the favorites for the U.S. Open, which is quite an amazing achievement. But it's like riding a bike: Once you know how to ride a bike, you never forget that. That's why I'm not that surprised. But it's nice that she found she hasn't lost the love for the game."

Amid the merriment, there were still signs of the discord from the previous evening. Williams was fined $10,000 on Sunday, the maximum on-site fine that can be issued for unsportsmanlike conduct at a Grand Slam tournament. The U.S. Open said in a statement that the Grand Slam committee administrator will "determine if the behavior of Ms. Williams warrants consideration as a major offense for which additional penalties can be imposed." No truth to the rumor that they are also investigating whether there was gambling at Rick's Café.

As a wild card, Clijsters defeated both Williams sisters (she is the only player to defeat the sisters in the same tournament on two different occasions) and two other players seeded in the teens. She will enter the rankings this week in the top 20, and said her immediate plans are to play a tournament in Luxembourg and figure out the rest along the way.

"The goal was not to just come back as a player," said Sam Verslegers, Clijsters' trainer. "The goal was to come back as a real good player."

Verslegers said Clijsters hits the ball faster than when she retired. That is a remarkable achievement, given that Verslegers described her as an "overweight" woman who could barely run 30 minutes at the start of her training in January.

Clijsters broke Wozniacki in the second game of the first set before surrendering four straight games. With brilliant defensive and patient play, Wozniacki frustrated the Belgian, forcing her into 12 unforced errors in the first three games of the set. But Clijsters steadied her nerves in a set that had six breaks and won five of the final six games. She won the second set in a crisp 37 minutes, breaking Wozniacki in the sixth game and never looking back.

Wozniacki, the first Dane to make a Grand Slam final (Denmark ranked as the happiest country in the world, according to the 2008 World Values Survey published by the United States National Science Foundation), is likely to be heard from again. The savvy 19-year-old (she thanked fans in Danish and Polish) is the youngest member of the top 20 and leads the tour with 62 victories this year."She just played better than me," Wozniacki said. "I really did my best. I tried my hardest and I had a great two weeks. I think it's just about enjoying the moment. Not that you lost, but enjoy that you were in the finals and just be happy about that. If I started saying, 'Oh, I should have won, I should have done this and that,' I think that would be kind of a sin, you know. Because I've really done great, and I think I should be proud of what I've achieved."

But the night belonged to Clijsters. When she won here in 2005, Clijsters mentioned that her father, Leo, had not made the trip because he had to look after the family's five dogs. Leo Clijsters was a defender on Belgium's national soccer team who was thought to be washed up at the end of his 20s. But he made the national team again in his 30s and imparted comeback lessons to his daughter. He died last January after a yearlong battle with lung cancer.

"A lot of people and the press sort of wrote him down and said, That's it, he'll never come back," Clijsters said. "But he came back and he played for the national team again. I think in a way that helped. Those were stories that he told me too."

As it closed on 1 a.m. Monday morning, Clijsters was asked what her response would have been if someone had called her in the hospital after Jada was born and told her that she would win the U.S. Open 18 months later. She smiled.

"I would have definitely hung up the phone on you," she said.

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