A glistening, distorted toddler with blonde bouncing curls pounced closer and closer. Her mouth stretched from ear to ear on the silver reflection of the US Open trophy that her mother grasped tightly to her body.
Later, she was asked if she thought 18-month-old Jada Ellie knew what had just happened. Kim Clijsters simply replied, "No." Little Jada seemed to love the spotlight on court with her mother, aimlessly jumping up and down in celebration, clueless that she would become as much of the storyline as the former world No. 1 Clijsters' triumphant return to tennis.
Clijsters left tennis for two years and four months without a tournament, and in just her third tournament back she won her second, and sweetest, Grand Slam. She became the first unranked and unseeded woman since 1968 and the first mother since Evonne Goolagong-Cawley in 1980 to win a Grand Slam.
In a few weeks, Clijsters' second career will reach one year. In what has been a year of ups and downs, winning three titles and suffering a foot injury that sidelined her for the French, it will be the image of mother and daughter and trophy that will forever define it - not just the year, but perhaps her entire career.
"This wasn't a part of the plan," Clijsters said shortly after winning the 2009 US Open. "Not in my wildest dreams could I ever imagine this happening."
Clijsters is a winner of 37 titles, 11 doubles titles and reigned as the No.1-ranked player for 19 weeks. Her return to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour became heavily anticipated, only to be eclipsed by her fellow compatriot Justine Henin's return. However, it was Clijsters in the end that cast the shadow over Henin, defeating her in the final in Brisbane, again on her way to winning the title in Miami and finally holding off the hopes of Henin getting the Slam she never won.
The media has played up the Belgians' return, creating an older, more powerful women's tennis demographic that leaves no mercy for teenage burnouts. That trend looks as if it will continue as critics are quick to point that Clijsters may be better than she's ever been. Clijsters doesn't seem to always disagree. As a mother, she has more balance in her life and a fresher outlook on her career.
"Well, the motivation was missing then," Clijsters said about her game before her retirement. "I came to an age where I felt like, combined with the injuries, I wasn't 100% focused on my tennis anymore."
Now, Clijsters says she is much more organized than she was during her first career. As a mother, everything has to be a little more planned, and she has translated that ability to adjust on the court with her skill and emotion.
But to everyone's surprise, it's her even stronger body that has tennis bracing itself. The daughter of a former professional soccer player and a Belgian champion in gymnastics, pure genetics have always been the culprit behind Clijsters' raw power, but her new body as a mother has caused a stir in what scientists call the "baby boost." Researchers have claimed that childbirth can leave some women more able to cope with the demanding activity of professional sports. The body produces more red blood cells during pregnancy, improving the amount of oxygen that reaches muscles by nearly one third.
Debuting Fila's new Heritage Apparel Collection this year, there's no doubt that Clijsters is finding the perfect fit in her dual role as a mother and tennis player. The balance has given her a sharper focus. She is unwavering in her priorities as a mother and wife first and tennis player second, but she has also found ways to be much more beyond that - after winning Brisbane, she donated her $37,000 winner's cheque to the Royal Brisbane Hospital children's wing.
Now Clijsters is back in the Top 10 rankings, and even if her return to tennis isn't long term, she has let everyone know it is where she belongs. The 2009 US Open was an early statement in the comeback of her career, making history as a mother and player. She defeated Serena Williams in a controversial match, but now Williams is back to the top of her game as the Wimbledon champion, and tennis around the world will be holding their breath for a rematch.
Clijsters, of course, would embrace the challenge. For all the new passions in her life, tennis was by far the first.
"I feel very lucky that I've been able to do what I love to do for so long. But everything else that comes with it... I don't say to Bryan or Jada, Mommy is going off to work. I say, Mommy is going to try to train to get better."