NEW YORK — Four years and one baby later, Kim Clijsters still looks like a contender.
The 2005 U.S. Open titlist cruised through her return to Grand Slam tennis Monday, defeating Viktoriya Kutuzova 6-1, 6-1 in the opening round in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
It was Clijsters' first Grand Slam match since the 2007 Australian Open, after which she retired to start a family. She had a baby girl in May 2008, but recently decided to return to competitive tennis.
It has been a good return thus far, one that has included four wins over top-20 opponents in two tournaments in August. Granted, this was only the first round of the U.S. Open, but her 58-minute win over Kutuzova included very few signs of rust.
"Now it's a matter of trying to keep this going," Clijsters said.
She won the first seven and last 11 points of the match and grinded through her few hiccups, including three double-faults in the third game of the opening set, which extended to seven deuces before she pulled it out.
The win guaranteed she'll be ranked at least 148th after the Open, when she'll have played the three required tournaments she needs to return to the list.
"I still feel like I can improve," she said. "But I'm definitely comfortable where I am right now."
Other winners in the first round included eighth-seeded Victoria Azarenka, 12th-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska and 26th-seeded Francesca Schiavone. Five-time defending champion Roger Federer was to play NCAA champion Devin Britton later Monday.
The Williams sisters were both on the schedule, as were Andy Roddick and James Blake.
Another American, Sam Querrey, will debut later this week, bringing with him some lofty expectations — he might be the next great American tennis star in a country looking for just that.
"Everyone is doing what they can," said Querrey, who is seeded 22nd. "A lot of times, even if you go back 100 years, you'll have a period of 10 years where you'll have four or five guys in the top 10, and then years where you might just have one guy. It's kind of like a rolling wave."
As much as anywhere else, the search for America's next great player resonates at Arthur Ashe Stadium, inside the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of America's Grand Slam. It's the place where Connors and McEnroe, Chrissy and Tracy Austin, ruled during a golden era that feels more like ancient history with each passing year.
Patrick McEnroe is in charge of putting together the program that will keep the pipeline filled, with hopes of producing multiple stars in the future.
"I think it's going in the right direction," Roddick said. "I think even with younger kids going back to 14, 15, 16 years old in Florida, from what I hear, it's a lot more" organized.
That's the future.
The present belongs — could belong, that is — to guys like John Isner (ranked 55th), Donald Young (185) and Jesse Levine (135). No. 25 seed Mardy Fish is on this list, too, but the 27-year-old withdrew Sunday with a rib injury.
He stands 6-foot-6 and ranks third on tour with 696 aces this year, a stat that is allowing him to become more aggressive in his return game, as well, because he's more confident about holding serve.
He is 21-6 since Wimbledon and has played in four finals, including a victory in Los Angeles. He won the U.S. Open Series, a grouping of hard-court tournaments leading to this week. That pushed his ranking from barely inside the top 50 to a career-best 22nd. It also earned him a chance for a $1 million bonus if he wins the Open.
His biggest win this summer was a 7-6 (11), 7-6 (3) victory over Roddick, one that may not signal Querrey is ready to rise all the way to the top, but certainly serves as a confidence builder.
"It also helps if you play Federer or Nadal," Querrey said. "Andy's beaten those guys. Hey, he did it, I beat him, why can't I beat those guys? So it kind of gives you that extra edge against them, too."