Kim Clijsters, the tennis mom everyone loves, bowed out of professional tennis for the second and final time amid scenes of great emotion at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday afternoon when she lost to a British teenager, Laura Robson, 7-6(4), 7-6(5).
Being one of the nicest people in the game, Clijsters wore a big smile as she hugged Robson at the net, but there were tears in the house by then because no one wanted to see Clijster's extraordinary US Open odyssey end.
Her career stretched over seven years during which she only played here four times because of retirement or injury, but the Belgian had never lost at Flushings Meadows. Three titles and a 22-match winning streak left only Chris Evert with her 31 straight wins between 1975-79 ahead of her.
But although this finale felt premature for most of her fans, there was no doubting the worthiness of Robson's victory. The 18-year-old, who lives about a mile from Wimbledon and trailed 2-5 in the first set, suddenly started unleashing her big weapon, a power-driven left-handed forehand down the line that gave Clijsters no chance.
Two of those forehands helped Robson break back and go on to win the first breaker 7-4. Losing her serve at the beginning of the second set, Robson refused to panic and broke back again, mixing aggressive hitting with some impressive defense that could have been taken straight out of Clijsters' playbook.
After Clijsters had saved two match points, Robson got her nose in front in the second tiebreak by scooping back two deep Clijsters drives and finishing the point by forcing an error with a big forehand. That made it 4-3, and although she lost the next point on her serve, Robson came up with her trademark forehand again to reach match point. Clijsters couldn't control a service return, and it was all over.
"I had to work my butt off to win," was Robson's first reaction as Clijsters left the stadium to a rousing reception. Later she was asked if she thought about ending Kim's career. "I honestly didn't think about it at all during the match," she said. "I was so focused on trying to play as aggressive as I could. At the end, you know, it was obviously really sad to see her play her last match. She's been able to bring so much to the women's game. I've always loved watching her play because she's such a dynamic player. And, yeah, I'm feeling a bit worse now because you keep mentioning it!"
Clijsters breezed into the conference room with a big smile on her face. "Last time!" she laughed.
"But I'm happy now. Obviously I was sad coming off court, and I found myself going through the usual routine of analyzing what I did wrong in the match but that doesn't matter now. It's OK. I've had this amazing journey, this roller coaster ride with so many up and downs, but I'm proud of myself, of the way I have managed to keep going through the last 18 months."
Otherwise there was something old, something new and something very much in the present on a gloriously sunny day at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center.
Brian Baker will forgive me for the 'old' but, as the 27-year-old admitted, he certainly feels a lot older than when he played here last, all of seven years ago. And, despite the extraordinary length of time he spent away from the game going through five surgeries on his hips and elbows, Baker's acquired maturity helped him serve his way past the 29-year-old Czech, Jan Hajek, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
"I definitely think I am more mature now," said the quiet-spoken man from Nashville. "I handle the ups and down a little better in the match. I've gone through a lot of adversity over the years, and every match you can have adversity. How you deal with that can sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing."
Baker also felt that his serve and forehand have improved and it was the consistency of his serving at tight moments that enabled him to keep a firm grip on the match.
The 'new' appeared in the form of Grand Slam debutante Mallory Burdette, a 21-year-old Stanford University student who remembered everything coach Nick Saviano had told her and simply outplayed her Czech opponent, Lucie Hradecka 6-2, 6-4. Hradecka is an experienced 27-year-old, ranked 69 in the world in singles, who won an Olympic silver medal by reaching the doubles final in London, so this was no mean feat.
Burdette, who insists she is going to stay amateur and forego the $37,000 prize money that she would be entitled to, overpowered Hradecka with her aggressive style.
"My coach, Nick Saviano, has built my game," she said. "He's been working with me since I was 12. He saw in me that I was an aggressive type of person and that that type of game fit with my personality, so he always pushed me to be more aggressive, to make use of my volleys and be comfortable putting away overheads. Yea, I love playing tennis that way."
Obviously turning pro was an option for this Jackson, Ga., resident but Burdette opted to stay at Stanford. "I think college is a great breeding ground for players. I definitely wasn't sure when I was 18 whether I wanted to turn pro or not. I was on the fence. So I said, 'I'm going to take my time, I'm going to college, work towards a degree and go from there.'"
Her immediate destination might be Arthur Ashe Stadium because, in round two, she [will] be playing Maria Sharapova.
John Isner represents the 'present' in this story, and he came through a duel with the Belgian veteran, Xavier Malisse, that kept the Arthur Ashe crowd buzzing, not just as a result of his spectacular serving but the seemingly endless stream of dubious calls.
Isner came through 6-3, 7-6(5), 5-7, 7-6(11), but Malisse found himself doing all the challenging and eventually he started to complain bitterly and, on at least one occasion, obscenely. The Belgian received a code of conduct warning but continued to battle on and got as far as set point to level the match in the fourth set breaker. He would have had another if he hadn't dumped the simplest of forehand volleys into the net.
"Got to a certain point there where it was anybody's match," Isner admitted. "I just got pretty fortunate at the end."
Malisse refused to entertain the idea that the calls were going against him because he was playing an American on Ashe but that hardly improved his mood. "It was very frustrating because I felt I was the only one having to challenge," he said. "At 5-3 in the second set breaker, Hawk Eye proved that I should have won the point which would have given me set point and at one set all the match could have been different. There were so many bad calls it was a fiasco. I said a word I shouldn't have said and that was my fault, but they don't pay for messing up. We do."