- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW YORK -- Sixteen years ago, a 19-year-old Yugoslavian named Monica Seles was stabbed in the back during a changeover in Hamburg, Germany.
The physical and emotional damage kept her from the game for more than two years. After missing 10 major tournaments, she returned here in New York and advanced to the 1995 final, losing to Steffi Graf. Seles returned to the top in triumphant fashion four months later, winning the Australian Open title.
On Sunday night, Kim Clijsters did Seles one better. In July 2007, she left the game to get married and give birth to a daughter. Forty-four days ago, after missing the last 10 majors, Clijsters came back in Cincinnati.
And now, 14 matches and three tournaments into her comeback she is the 2009 U.S. Open champion. With Jada Ellie, a riot of blonde curls, pink pacifier and kinetic energy looking on, Clijsters became the first mother to win a major title since Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon 29 years ago.
Before she hit the final serve, she pressed her left wristband -- the one that covers the tattooed words "Jada" -- to her lips. Soon, an overhead was the end of 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki, 7-5, 6-3. And then Clijsters fell to her knees.
"We tried to plan her naptime a little bit later so she could be here," Clijsters said.
At this point, the cameras cut to Jada. When she saw herself on the big screen in Arthur Ashe, she started pointing at her own image.
"It's the greatest feeling in the world being a mother," Clijsters said. "She's enjoyed being in New York. We've tried to keep it really fun, and that's helped me to keep my mind off all the craziness."
Ah, the craziness. Twenty-four hours after her semifinal match with Serena Williams ended in a wrenching rage, the 26-year-old Belgian struck a blow for sweetness and light. Melanie Oudin, the 17-year-old from Georgia, was a lovely storyline, but she departed in the quarterfinals. This felt more like the stuff of legend.
Clijsters, who hasn't played enough to merit an official ranking from the Sony Ericsson WTA, was given a wild card into the tournament by the USTA.
The champion here in 2005, Clijsters did not play the past three U.S. Opens. So she is a perfect 14-0 in back-to-back appearances here at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. There was a newfound poise in the player who had reached 12 previous major semifinals and come away with only that championship.
"It was incredible," Wozniacki said of her first trip past the fourth round of a major. "She's such a great girl. I'm so excited she came back -- unfortunately she beat me today."
There was virtually no conceivable circumstance in which the women's final could surpass the semifinal that preceded it.
Even on a weekend usually dominated by college football and the opening of the NFL season, Serena Williams' abrupt and angry departure generated spectacular heat in the world of sports. A chain of unimaginable events -- a foot fault on the penultimate point, a violent outburst of threatening language and menacing gestures toward the lineswoman who called it and an obligatory point penalty -- gave Clijsters the match and immediately made the final, in some people's minds, an anticlimactic exercise.
Three years ago, Clijsters played doubles with a 16-year-old wild card in a Hong Kong exhibition. Her name was Caroline Wozniacki.
"Just by the way she was hitting the ball, you could just tell that she was going to be a rising star," Clijsters said. "She's shown that in her results."
Wozniacki is a delightful personality. She has played more matches this year (80) and won more (62) than any other woman, and is complete in all phases of the game. But while Clijsters is a knockout artist, Wozniacki is strictly a counterpuncher.
After losing in the fourth round at Wimbledon, she followed some advice from her friend Mikkel Kessler, the current WBA super middleweight champion, and began working with trainer Poul Duville. Wozniacki followed the boxer's regimen of working the treadmill and throwing a passel of punches -- first to Duville's big soft catching mitts, later to his midsection as they sparred.
"I've become faster, more lean, stronger," Wozniacki said at the New Haven tournament. "That really helps my game, because in pressure situations out on the court, I still am able to hit the ball back strongly."
Oddsmakers installed Clijsters as a 1-5 favorite. The only real question going in was whether Wozniacki could hang in long enough on rallies to get an unforced error out of Clijsters in breezy conditions.
The early returns were impressive.
Clijsters scored the first break of serve seven minutes into the match, but Wozniacki converted the fifth opportunity a game later to get back on serve and ran off three straight games. She broke Clijsters' serve three times in the first set, but lost the war.
Clijsters, showing patience she may have gained with motherhood, broke Wozniacki when she was trying to skate into a tiebreaker. The second set never seemed to be an issue.
Serena got a whiff of Clijsters' level when the Belgian beat reigning French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova a month ago in Cincinnati -- in only the third match after her sabbatical.
Even Roger Federer, on the eve of his final quest to win six straight U.S. Open titles, planned to watch the match.
"Coming back from just having sort of a -- not even a month's lead-up until the U.S. Open," Federer said. "For her to have this incredible run is fantastic. This is a great story for women's tennis, that's for sure."
Clijsters' ranking is projected to be in the top 20.
Winning the U.S. Open was, she said, "Not really our plan. I just wanted to get back into the rhythms of tennis."
After the trophy presentation, Jada Ellie finally escaped from the adult laps that had contained her enthusiasm for so long and ran around on the blue court at Arthur Ashe. She helped her mother hold the trophy and posed with Mom and Dad (Brian Lynch, who played basketball at Villanova).
This was supposed to be Clijsters' show, but Jada Ellie very definitely stole it, cavorting for the cameras, waving and tearing around on her unsteady feet.
Said Clijsters, "I'm excited to go home and live the normal family life again."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Kim Clijsters' U.S. Open championship came after two years away from the game and the birth of a daughter. Now that's the stuff of legend.