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Best of 3: Surprise US Open champions

Kim Clijsters and her daughter at the 2009 US Open (Getty Images)
Photo by:  (Getty Images)

The beauty of the US Open is the element of competition, the surprises lurking in each tournament that upend the draw and turn seeming coronations into can’t-miss moments. Since the dawn of the Open era in 1968, the US Open has delivered its share of surprising champions. In our inaugural Best of 3, we take a look at three unexpected title runs that stand out above the rest.

1994: Andre Agassi

No one ever doubted Andre Agassi’s talent. He was pegged as a future US Open champion long before his first main-draw match, in 1986, a sense of inevitably that grew as he reached the semifinals in 1988 and 1989 and the final in 1990. But as the years passed and his title drought lengthened, the thought that Agassi would one day win multiple men’s singles titles started to feel, well, not so inevitable after all.

And so began the 1994 US Open. Agassi entered the tournament with very little momentum. He had not advanced past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event since his Wimbledon championship in 1992, and he arrived in New York unseeded and ranked No. 20 in the world. But that talent remained, and with each match the 24-year-old Las Vegan built his confidence and reassembled his game, dictating terms from the baseline and dispatching seed after seed – five in all, a US Open record – including Wayne Ferreira (seeded 12th), Michael Chang (6), Thomas Muster (13) and, in the semis, Todd Martin (9).

The run culminated with a straight-sets victory over No. 4 seed Michael Stich in the final – and a first of two US Open crowns for the swashbuckling Hall of Famer.

2009: Kim Clijsters

How does a former US Open winner measure as a surprise champion? When she enters the US Open having not even played enough to register a WTA ranking.

Kim Clijsters retired in the spring of 2007, exiting the sport to start a family and leaving behind a reputation as one of the friendliest competitors in the game – a great player whose major results – a 2005 US Open title and a smattering of Slam semifinal and runner-up finishes – never quite matched her promise. So when Clijsters returned to tennis in the summer of 2009, she was warmly received, but with little expectation that she would immediately challenge for titles.

The amiable Belgian played just two events prior to the 2009 US Open, reaching the quarters in Cincinnati and the third round in Toronto – respectable showings but hardly results that would presage a title run in Flushing. Then the Open started – and Clijsters started piling up wins. She defeated future Wimbledon champion Marion Batroli, two-time US Open winner Venus Williams and future two-time Slam titlist Li Na. Clijsters’ topped it off with a stunning Finals Weekend romp: a semifinal victory against Serena Williams and title match triumph over rising star Caroline Wozniacki.

And with that, Clijsters, newly returned to the game and finally with a ranking to prove it, celebrated on court with her daughter, the first mom to win a Slam since Evonne Goolagong in 1980.

2015: Flavia Pennetta

Certainly, Flavia Pennetta had always thrived at the US Open. She reached the quarterfinals on four occasions and the semis in 2013, a résumé that made her a popular sleeper pick in the 2015 US Open women’s singles draw. But a potential champion? It seemed unlikely. For all of Pennetta’s success in New York, she had never contended for a Grand Slam crown. In fact, of the combined 38 main-draw appearances she made at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, the Italian had advanced past the round of 16 just once (in Melbourne in 2014).

Nor did her 2015 US Open begin auspiciously. Pennetta needed three sets in the first and third rounds, both against unseeded opponents. But from there, the momentum grew and the seas parted. The No. 26 seed ran off a string of upsets, defeating No. 22 Samantha Stosur, No. 5 Petra Kvitova and No. 2 Simona Halep to set up a presumed final with Serena Williams. But fate intervened in the form of Roberta Vinci, who stunned the six-time Open champion to set up the first all-Italian Grand Slam final of the Open era.

In the finale, Pennetta held her nerve, topping her countrywoman to capture a title almost as surprising as what came afterward. In the post-match, on-court press conference, Pennetta announced her retirement from the game – stunning the tennis world for the second time in a single day.