NEW YORK (AP) – The hot, humid, blustery weather that enveloped the U.S. Open on Wednesday was just another hurdle for Kim Clijsters to clear.

“It was tough, it was very tough,” the fourth-seeded player said.

But not as tough as Clijsters.

The right-hander from Belgium is back at the National Tennis Center after missing last year’s tournament due to left wrist surgery. She’s also back in the running for the title, having dominated play this summer on the North American hard court circuit.

Her 7-5, 6-0 victory over Fabiola Zuluaga of Columbia – her 51st match win of the year – put Clijsters into a third-round matchup against Ai Sugiyama.

But just the fact she’s playing has delighted the 22-year-old.

In January 2004, she sprained her left ankle, then had tendinitis and a bone bruise in her left wrist. Surgery a year ago to repair the torn tendon and remove a cyst from her left wrist kept her from playing in the year’s final Grand Slam tournament.

“I was here,” she said of the 2004 U.S. Open. “I was watching Lleyton (Hewitt) play here last year, so I was here.”

And it was during last year’s Open that she began hitting again.

“This was actually the first time where I started to do some mini tennis backhands,” she said. “In a way, I was so excited that I was able to hit again.

“You know, although it was just mini tennis, it was just hitting the ball. I was happy to play. I was able to hit my first backhands.

“That was sort of a like a step forward to playing tournaments again.”

She reinjured her wrist at a tournament in Belgium and was still sidelined during this year’s Australian Open, one year after reaching the final Down Under.

Since her return, Clijsters has been having plenty of success. Wednesday’s victory was her 51st match win of the year.

A Grand Slam tournament title, however, still eludes her. She has reached four finals, losing to Jennifer Capriati at the French Open in 2001, to fellow Belgium Justine Henin-Hardenne three times, in 2003 at both the French Open and U.S. Open and at the Australian Open in 2004.

Clijsters said there are several players who she knows she has to beat to regain the No. 1 ranking, listing Henin-Hardenne, Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena Williams, and Lindsey Davenport.

“That’s what it’s all about,” she said. “That’s what motivates you to train better. It motivates you to work hard because you know that those girls, they’re working every day hard to get back, to be strong, to just keep strong.

“I knew I had to put in twice the effort if I wanted to come back. It’s not just one player, it’s the whole group that keeps you motivated and hungry to play tennis.”

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