That Kim Clijsters spent the past week making some of her sport's top players look bad was nothing new. But the idea that Clijsters could immediately commence pushing around worthy opponents, after a 27-month sabbatical from competition, revived an unwelcome old ghost of discussion in women's tennis.
Is Clijsters, more than two years past early "retirement" - during which she married and gave birth to a daughter - so good that lengthy inactivity couldn't diminish her top-10 bona fides? Or might women's tennis be too weak to expose the predictable rustiness in an old champ on the rebound?
At the pre-U.S. Open tournament ending Sunday in Cincinnati, Clijsters knocked off France's Marion Bartoli, who had just beaten Venus Williams for the title at Stanford; old pro Patty Schnyder of Switzerland, another top 20 player; and regining French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.
"Does it look easy?" Clijsters said in response to a question about how in-control she was.
Both Williams sisters already had been bounced from the tournament before Clijsters' run was stopped by No. 1 Dinara Safina on Friday. By then, Kuznetsova declared Clijsters to be a contender for this year's Open championship - four years after Clijsters won her only major tournament title at Flushing Meadows.
"I think she has good chances," said Kuznetsova, herself a U.S. champion in '04. "She is the same as she was before. She moves well. You can see she hasn't been all the time on the tour but she is playing great."
Kuznetsova remembered how Clijsters returned from a pair of long absences because of wrist injuries to quickly rise back among the leaders in '05 and '07. During one stretch, Clijsters, still only 26, advanced at least as far as the semifinals in five consecutive Grand Slam events. Despite those injury gaps in her schedule, she progressed at least to the semis in 11 of the 16 majors she played between 2002 and early 2007.
"I don't think this means anything yet," cautioned Peter Bodo, one of the sport's keen observers whose blog is only one of his many tennis writings. "Clijsters' problem never was beating up on the lesser girls who seemed to be easily cowed, psychologically. It's got to be tough playing Kim Clijsters" - a physically strong, athletic presence, though she was branded to be something of a Nervous Nellie when she lost her first four major singles finals.
Bodo called the evaluations of depth in the women's game "a distorted picture." While lesser players on the men's tour can sometimes salvage matches against higher-ranked stars by virtue of sheer, mindless, go-for-it power, Bodo believes the second-tier women can't hide psychological doubt, as well.
"On the women's side," he said, "you lose that first set, 6-1, and you're making reservations in your head." Intimidation multiplies.
But to devalue Clijsters' results in her fairly triumphant return would be selling her short. She was good enough, after all, to make her Wimbledon and U.S. Open debuts shortly after turning 16 - advancing to the third and fourth rounds, respectively - to play her first major tournament final at 17, losing to Jennifer Capriati at the French, and to reach No. 1 at 20.
"You cannot lose your talent," Safina said of Clijsters. "If you are a great player, it doesn't matter."