It was almost a dream grand slam comeback for Kim Clijsters, but the Belgian's US Open first round match ultimately ended in heartbreak.
The three-time champion powered her way to an early lead but couldn't hold it, with Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova completing a thrilling come-from-behind victory.
'CLUELESS’: Thiem slammed over US Open breach
Clijsters won the opening set to leave fans dreaming about what might be, but the 37-year-old couldn't see complete the fairytale as she succumbed to a 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 defeat.
It was Clijsters' first match at a Grand Slam tournament since 2012, when she retired after the Open.
Now 37, the mother of three and a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, she decided to resume her career this year but is yet to win a match in three attempts.
"It's a process," Clijsters said after the match.
"That's what I told myself at the start when I took this challenge on - that it's going to take a lot of hard work and losses."
ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW, KIM CLIJSTERS? pic.twitter.com/aF5HoZwpzk— D'Arcy Maine (@darcymaine_espn) September 2, 2020
Clijsters gave herself every chance of sealing a monumental win after taking Alexandrova down to the wire in a gripping second set.
The Russian showed tremendous grit to see off the challenge from Clijsters, before the 37-year-old collapsed in the deciding set.
Viewers were delighted to see fan-favourite Clijsters back competing on the biggest stage, but were left devastated by her early exit in New York.
Elated to see Kim Clijsters back at #usopen — sad we won’t see more of her at the tournament! Alexandrova played so well though— Keira Alexander (@keira_alexander) September 2, 2020
So sad if Clijsters lose this 1st round match 😔 I miss her prime days especially against Li Na— Rohaidi Johadi (@RohaidiJR) September 2, 2020
Commentators saying something might be bothering Clijsters physically. I can see that. Super high pace & intensity, long match, and she had an injury before. Would be very sad for such a great match to end this way #USOpen— AndrewMc’ 🏴 (@CheapAbyss) September 2, 2020
Another blow for the comeback of Kim Clijsters as she bows out of the @usopen first round together with another former champion Venus Williams— Mr Bubbles ala Brucey Baby (@bruceybld) September 2, 2020
It’s great to see Andy Murray and Kim Clijsters back on the US Open court, despite the latter’s loss. A small dose of nostalgia for a better world. #USOpen— David W. Congdon (@dwcongdon) September 2, 2020
First thing I hear on the radio this morning: "Clijsters is out at the US Open". Let me go back to sleep 😩— Ruth (@ruthf_rf) September 2, 2020
I wish Clijsters had pulled through. She was so close! I hope she stays healthy and continues improving. Can't wait to see what she'll do next.— 🦇 Jack Rossiter-Munley 🦇 (@JackRossiterMun) September 2, 2020
Veteran praises Russian opponent
Clijsters said she trained hard for the Open and was excited to play, even with no fans in the stands because of the coronavirus pandemic.
She has been hampered this year by injuries, most recently an abdominal ailment that appeared to be an issue in the final set, when the pace of her serve dropped.
But Clijsters said she felt fine, and the only problem was Alexandrova, a tour veteran ranked 29th.
"She started serving a lot better, I felt," Clijsters said.
"In the third set I just felt like she was seeing the ball very well and hitting her targets all the time."
The atmosphere was much different than at the Open in, say, 2005, or 2009, or 2010. Clijsters won the title each of those years. She also won the 2011 Australian Open and is a former world No. 1.
There were no fans to offer encouragement when Clijsters let the second set slip away, or as she faded at the end.
The Belgian won only three of 15 break-point chances in a stat that highlights where she needs to improve.
But Clijsters said she felt good about the quality of tennis. She dominated from the baseline in the early going, was effective at the net and ranked the performance overall as her best this year.
"That's the most positive thing about it," she added.
"You look at a loss in a little bit more of a mature way than maybe 10 years ago."