"It puts in perspective how lucky I am to run around [a tennis court] and have my family there," said the fourth-seeded Clijsters, who beat Mary Pierce 6-3, 6-1 in the women's final. The 22-year-old Belgian had raised another $25,000 before the tournament began to help build an orphanage in India for victims of last year's tsunami. "It can all be over very quickly," she said.
Clijsters knows. Last year left wrist surgery knocked her off the tour for eight months; she watched the 2004 U.S. Open unsure if she would ever play again. Like Agassi, Blake, Ginepri and Pierce, Clijsters added to this Slam's sober feel with her tale of a career reborn. Unlike them, however, she didn't seem hell-bent on making up for lost time. Tennis had defined her life, after all; she had begun dating Australian pro Lleyton Hewitt when she was 15 and become a full-time pro at 16. For the first three months of her layoff Clijsters didn't miss the sport. She and Hewitt broke off their engagement last fall, and she became involved with Brian Lynch, an American basketball player in Belgium. By the time she returned to the tour in February, Clijsters was better conditioned, with a firmer serve and forehand. But even while dominating the summer hard-court season, she announced a plan to retire after the '07 season. For years she had been depicted as the tour's Happy Warrior, too nice to win; she had lost four Slam finals. But even after dispelling that image by thrashing Pierce last Saturday night, Clijsters had no thought of changing her plans. She wants children and doesn't want to wait.
"Brian's the most important thing in my life now," she said after the final. "I would give up this title, straight away, just to have him. Because at the end of the day when you go home, the trophies are not talking to you. They're not going to love you. I want the people I love with me."
Clijsters's attitude was typical of this Open. Though there were the usual minor squabbles over umpiring and gamesmanship, the sport seemed to have come down with a case of contagious maturity. Even as he grinds the tour deeper under his heel, Federer remains the most universally liked No. 1 ever. And Agassi, who spit at a chair umpire during the 1990 U.S. Open, has pretty much forsaken his old antics. No one has a bad word to say about him. "One of the more genuine people I've ever met," says Blake. "He's the last person to act like a superstar in the locker room. He's happy, friendly with everyone, having a good time. If you just mention a charity event, he's going to be there. If he likes you, he'll bend over backwards to help."
Yet what happened between Agassi and Blake in their quarterfinal still took the Open by surprise. The 25-year-old Blake, after missing last year's Open with a bout of shingles--which followed the death of his father, which followed a training accident in which Blake broke his neck--seemed ready, after two flawless sets, to seize his place at last as the next U.S. star. But Agassi wouldn't give way, grabbing the next two sets. Blake lifted his game to force a tiebreaker in the fifth, and thus began a stretch of near-perfect tennis, both men pushing beyond their limits. Agassi said later that he had never, not even in his classic matches against Sampras, played before a louder crowd. Blake went up 3-0 in the tiebreaker, looked up to the sky and said, "I love you, Dad."
Jaden and Jaz slept through that moment, so they'll have to ask their dad someday about that night and how a 35-year-old man, coming back from two sets down, somehow won the first fifth-set tiebreaker of his 20-year career. Maybe Agassi will tell them how Blake held off one match point with a stunning forehand, and how the best returner in history then topped that on the next match point by hammering the perfect return, another forehand to the pocket where sideline and baseline meet. Maybe he'll tell, too, how thousands went silent for an instant, waiting for the call that never came. How Blake sagged, and some fan threw a dozen napkins fluttering into the air. "Unbelievable!" a man screamed. Maybe Agassi will tell his kids how that man was right. Afterward Andre and Philip joined Reyes and Andre's coach, Darren Cahill, for dinner at that old Manhattan saloon P.J. Clarke's and relived the points. Soon they were reliving other battles, other furious nights at Flushing Meadow, back when the Open felt new.
Once, when he was young and worried that he was squandering his talent, Agassi would've awakened on the morning of a Grand Slam final sick to his stomach. But that was six years and five Grand Slam titles ago; no player, ever, has had as productive a second act. Agassi woke up on Sunday morning calm. The most pressure he feels now, he says, comes when he cuts Jaz's fingernails. "It's about not defining myself by what happens [on the court] anymore," Agassi said afterward. "I pretty much know who I am, and I work on being more of that every day. Having a beautiful family makes any disappointments a bit easier and the good a lot better."
His daughter got to him first as he walked out of Ashe Stadium after the final. Agassi isn't sure if he'll play there again, but, really, it doesn't matter. What's left to prove? He shuffled over to Jaz. "Daddy didn't win," she chanted. "Daddy didn't win."
Agassi picked her up, and then Jaden walked up and asked, "Who did you play?"
"Some guy with long hair," Agassi said.