At long last, Clijsters finally has her day

NEW YORK -- Frankly, her mad dash up and into the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium -- tight-roping along a steep steel railing, vaulting a chasm of concrete and leaving fans and photographers scattered in her wake -- was more frightening to behold than her trademark, hamstring-defying split.

It was the only moment on Saturday night when Kim Clijsters truly seemed challenged. But, happily, she arrived safely and threw herself into the arms of her friends, family and coach.

Clijsters defeated Mary Pierce 6-3, 6-1 in a 61-minute rout to win the 2005 U.S. Open championship.

"I don't know, I didn't want to be standing out there by myself," Clijsters said later. "I just wanted to hug them I didn't know where I was going and what I was doing."

She had been this close to a Grand Slam singles title on four previous occasions, but lost every time. To Jennifer Capriati at Roland Garros in 2001, in a crazy 12-10 final set, and then three straight times to fellow Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne, including the U.S. Open two years ago.

And now Clijsters, at 22, is no longer the best women's player without a Grand Slam. That albatross now falls around the neck, that monkey lands squarely on the back of Amelie Mauresmo.

"I think for everything there is a time and place," Clijsters said. "Maybe it wasn't my time in the Grand Slams. Those definitely motivate you to work harder. Every time I got asked in my press conferences, the media was making a bigger deal about it than I was.

"You don't have to ask that any more."

Quite secondarily in Clijsters' mind is this added bonus: As the U.S. Open Series winner, she doubles her prize money, to $2.2 million, the biggest winner's check in women's sports history.

"That's not really on my mind at the moment," she said.

This will be an extremely popular victory.

Clijsters may be the most engaging, cooperative tennis player in the world. She proved, finally, that she is not too nice to win a major tournament. After missing eight months following surgery on her left wrist, after hearing from doctors that she might not regain her championship form, she has returned to the top of the game.

When Pierce called Clijsters "too good" during the trophy presentation, it resonated on many levels.

"She's a great girl, you know?" Pierce said. "Now she has a Grand Slam title to her name. I'm happy for her."

Did Clijsters reveal nerves, in arguably the most important match -- all things considered -- of her career going in? Not at all. The injury and her long period of rehabilitation seem to have brought her a new serenity.

"I think all that has definitely made me physically stronger person, too," Clijsters said.

For Pierce, who is playing her best tennis at the age of 30, this was another disappointing performance on the grand stage. She also reached the final this year at Roland Garros, but lost to Henin-Hardenne in 62 minutes.

During her interview, Pierce cryptically seemed to suggest that she would have considered retiring if she had managed to win the tournament.

Pierce, given enough time, can hit the ball with anyone, but Clijsters' speed and her ability to retrieve put extra pressure on Pierce to end rallies with big shots. Knowing it was her only chance, Pierce tried to play close to the baseline and play high-risk tennis. There was rarely a reward.

When her first serve came out a little squirrely, she had no chance in the first set. Clijsters broke her in three of five service games, as Pierce repeatedly sprayed the ball wide and long. The second set was even less competitive.

"I knew it was going to be a tough match," Pierce said, "when she came back from love-30 in the first game."

"She made me play bad, I guess you could say, because she's quicker than all the girls I've played so far. She got one more ball back, and [would] I just [make] a mistake."

In a year that has seen four different women win Grand Slam championships, Clijsters has been the most consistent down the stretch. She has now won 21 straight matches on hardcourts in North America. She is 56-6 for the year, the best record on WTA Tour.

Clijsters has said she intends to quit after the 2007 season -- at the age of 24. Now that she's on the board with a major, is she re-thinking her position?

"Two years is still long," she said, laughing. "Maybe I should quit in two weeks."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.