Kim Clijsters saved her most athletic moves for last. Having steamrolled a self-imploding Mary Pierce on Saturday night to win the U.S. Open, 6-3, 6-1, Clijsters dropped her tennis racket on the court, trotted to the net to give her opponent a hug and then spun on her heels and raced toward the stands.
She vaulted into the courtside photographers pit, clambered up the stairs behind it, tiptoed along a railing as if a gymnast on a balance beam, jumped into the guest box that held her mother, sister and coach, and disappeared in their embrace.
In defeating the 30-year-old Pierce, Clijsters won her first Grand Slam event and finally shook the unhappy mantle of being the best player in women's tennis to never have won a major title. Having claimed the U.S. Open Series by dominating this summer's hard-court tournaments leading up to this event, Clijsters also collected double prize money for her victory Saturday, which amounted to $2.2 million -- the biggest winner's check in sports history.
Though Clijsters is just 22, the spoils were long in coming. She had advanced to the final of four Grand Slam events only to come up short each time -- losing three to fellow Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne and one to American Jennifer Capriati. Then injury interrupted her promising career. After undergoing surgery on her left wrist Clijsters missed most of 2004 and was forced to watch last year's U.S. Open from the grandstands, her wrist wrapped in a cast, wondering if she'd ever play competitive tennis again.
"It's still very hard to believe," Clijsters told the crowd of 22,939 on hand at Arthur Ashe Stadium during the trophy presentation. "It's an amazing feeling to have after being out for so long last year. It just means so much more. I'm just a little bit speechless."
U.S. Open officials have been promoting the event's potential record payout for months. But the $2.2 million probably means less to Clijsters than it would to most professional athletes. She is widely regarded as the nicest woman on the tour, as well as the least motivated by money, fame and adulation. She has also been the most generous in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While the sport's top players donated used gear and clothing for an auction to benefit victims along the Gulf Coast, Clijsters made a personal gift of $25,000.
While Clijsters's breakthrough victory was cheered wildly, the tennis that produced it was hardly stirring. And the reason was Pierce, who rolled through her early-round matches but simply wasn't up to the task against the world's fourth-ranked woman.
At 5 feet 10, the hard-hitting Pierce plays a riskier game than Clijsters. Less athletic and less mobile, Pierce knows she needs to get points over quickly. That typically means driving balls deep and aiming for the lines. Against Clijsters, however, Pierce went for too much and missed too often, spraying forehands long and flubbing volleys to finish with 28 unforced errors and just seven winners.
It was the second consecutive final in a Grand Slam event in which Pierce has laid an egg. In June she was blown off the French Open's red clay by Henin-Hardenne, who needed just 62 minutes to engineer a 6-1, 6-1 victory. Saturday night Pierce fell in 65 minutes. The match wouldn't have lasted quite that long, however, if Pierce hadn't taken an extended bathroom break between sets. She also used one of her allotted timeouts in the first set to call for a trainer to secure the heavy tape on her right thigh.
The trainer's appearance drew a smattering of boos from fans, who grew weary of Pierce's delaying tactics during her semifinal victory over Elena Dementieva.
But the notoriously raucous New York crowd quieted as Pierce stumbled her way through the second set, barely contesting Clijsters's service games. It was as if they were torn between rooting for Pierce to climb back in the match or rooting for a total collapse to bring the curtain down on the dreadful display of tennis sooner. Even CBS announcers grew distressed, with broadcaster Dick Enberg observing, "This is just sucking the life out of this championship evening."
Said Pierce: "I give all the credit to Kim because today she was definitely the better player. She made me play bad, I guess you could say, because she is quicker than all the girls I've played so far."