Kim Clijsters' victory sweet -- and sour
NEW YORK -- It's been 15 years since Steffi Graf took down Monica Seles in a queasy three-set final at the U.S. Open, the last time a women's final went the distance here.
Good thing they moved it to prime time.
It was over in 59 minutes, nearly an hour of power -- and cower. If it had started on time, CBS would have had to fill with two hours of programming.
There was no exhilarating victory celebration, only a sad meeting at the net, during which Clijsters looked genuinely pained, as subdued as the crowd.
As seven-time major champion John McEnroe observed early in the second set, "This is difficult to watch right now."
Both players played true to form:
Clijsters, a freakish combination of size and power and speed, won her 21st consecutive match here and her third title in her past three tries. Zvonareva, cracking her racket and weeping as she went, lost her nerve early -- and often.
"A little bit of experience definitely helps," Clijsters said in her on-court interview. "I told her it's tough. It took me six or seven finals (actually four) before I finally got one. 'Vera, keep it going. It will happen.'"
In the fifth game of the second set, with the crowd urging (begging might not be too strong a word) the Russian to get back into the match, she actually forced a break point.
That was when Clijsters -- sort of like Indiana Jones contemplating the whirling swordsman in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and then causally shooting him -- fired an ace and later won the game.
Clijsters blew the Russian off the blue court she has grown to love. She hit powerful groundstrokes and moved beautifully along the baseline, retrieving almost everything.
Zvonareva did her best to help out. For example, she double-faulted in the sixth game of the second set to give Clijsters an opportunity to serve for the match. Which, after tossing in a charity break point, she did.
For the match, Clijsters won 58 points nearly twice as many as Zvonareva and broke her serve four times. Zvonareva had 24 unforced errors, leavened by only six winners.
Only two players reached two finals this Grand Slam season, and one of them was No. 1-ranked Serena Williams. Zvonareva, believe it or not, was the other. She went 28 majors without ever reaching the final and then, when she was visited by a welcome dose of confidence, she did it in back-to-back events.
Zvonareva had a terrific tournament, beating No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals and there were some (who shall remain nameless) who thought she had a chance in this match.
Well, not so much. How was she feeling during the on-court trophy ceremony?
"A little bit better right now than 10 minutes ago, when I was losing everything," Zvonareva said. "Kim just played tremendously well today. Even though I'm disappointed at the moment, I still love New York."
That drew Zvonareva her best round of applause for the night.
When she left the game at the age of 23 to become a mother, Clijsters was a one-Slam wonder. In 26 Grand Slam events, she won seven straight matches only once, at the 2005 U.S. Open.
The affable Belgian could have left it at that, living her life with daughter Jada and husband Brian Lynch, a former Villanova basketball player. With that single Grand Slam trophy on her mantle, Clijsters was in the company of one-timers like Jana Novotna, Gabriela Sabatini, Anastasia Myskina and Ana Ivanovic.
Clijsters missed 10 majors -- in what would have been the very prime of her career -- then returned with a flourish, winning last year's U.S. Open in only the third tournament back as an unseeded wild card.
"I was like, OK, little crazy," she said before the final. "I just wanted to be with Jada and with the family, and it was new. Now, here these last few weeks I've been hitting more during off days than I probably would in any Grand Slam."
Last year, Jada could barely walk during the trophy ceremony but, memorably, she enjoyed the moment in her mother's arms. On Saturday night, Jada walked under her own power, and when the television camera zoomed in while she was sitting in a changeover chair, she admonished, "No photos!" with the air of a seasoned professional.
She's only 27, but seems to already be thinking about leaving the game to add to her family. Suddenly armed with three Grand Slam titles -- all U.S. Opens -- Clijsters' legacy will be substantially different.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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