Thursday, August 30, 2012

Kim Clijsters fairy-tale run cut short in the second round of U.S. Open

I'm really gonna miss seeing her do these splits, wow!

NEW YORK (AP) — Preparing for what she knew would be her last professional tennis tournament, Kim Clijsters — four-time Grand Slam title winner; mother of 4-year-old Jada — devoted her effort and energy to the U.S. Open.

Family time needed to wait a tad longer.

"She was like, 'Why don't you come with us to go out, go for a walk?' I'm like, 'Mama's almost done,'" Clijsters said Wednesday after her singles career ended where she wanted it to, just not the way she hoped. "So, yeah, I think she's going to be excited to kind of have her mom around more, on a more regular kind of basis."

Little Jada's gain is the tennis tour's loss.

Clijsters lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) to 18-year-old Laura Robson of Britain in the second round of the U.S. Open, and will head into retirement after she finishes playing doubles at Flushing Meadows.

"It's been an incredible journey, and a lot of dreams for me have come true because of tennis. As a little girl, I got Christmas rackets under the tree and outfits of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, and I would want to wear them to bed, I was so excited," Clijsters said. "So for me to have been able to have been a part of women's tennis, and on top of women's tennis for so many years — you don't think about it when you're in it; you're kind of on automatic pilot. ... Now that I think about it, it's been a crazy rollercoaster at times, as well."

She walked away from the sport once before, in May 2007, then returned after a hiatus of two-plus years. Now 29, the Belgian insisted this season that she means it this time, and decided the U.S. Open — and its hard courts that she conquered on the way to three championships — would be her final tournament.

"It's the place that has inspired me so much to do well and to do great things. It's hard to explain sometimes why," Clijsters said in an on-court interview, her face flushed and her eyes welling with tears.

"This completely feels like the perfect place to retire," Clijsters told the spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium, many of whom rose to shower her with a standing ovation. "I just wish it wasn't today."

The loss Wednesday ended Clijsters' 22-match winning streak in New York, encompassing titles in 2005, 2009 and 2010, plus Monday's first-round victory.

She missed the hard-court major in 2004, 2006-08 and last year, thanks to a combination of injuries and the time she took off while starting a family. Clijsters was married in 2007, and Jada was born in February 2008. By August 2009, Clijsters was back on tour; unseeded and unranked, because she only played in two previous tournaments during her comeback, she won that year's U.S. Open.

"Since I retired the first time, it's been a great adventure for my team and my family," said Clijsters, who was 28-0 against players ranked outside the top 10 at the U.S. Open before Wednesday. "It's all been worth it. But I do look forward to the next part of my life coming up."

Her previous defeat at Flushing Meadows came against Belgian rival Justine Henin on Sept. 6, 2003, in the tournament final. Robson was 9 at the time.

This did have the feel, in some ways, of a changing of the guard.

Clijsters finished with a career singles record of 523-127 (a winning percentage of .805) and 41 titles, including her last major trophy at the 2011 Australian Open. She spent a total of 20 weeks ranked No. 1, as recently as February 2011.

"I hate to lose. My husband and I, we play ping pong in our garage, and I don't even want to give him a point," Clijsters said, rubbing her palms together.

Ranked 89th, and with only one prior victory over a woman ranked in the top 25, Robson has been viewed — particularly back home in Britain — as an up-and-coming player whose smooth left-handed strokes would carry her far.

But she had never produced the kind of grit and court-covering athleticism that carried her past the 23rd-seeded Clijsters. And until now, Robson never had won more than one match in a Grand Slam tournament; her claim to fame had been teaming for a silver medal in mixed doubles at the London Olympics with Andy Murray, who reached the U.S. Open's third round by beating 118th-ranked Ivan Dodig of Croatia 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 in the last match Wednesday night.

Robson knows how much Clijsters means to the game, not only as a superb player but as someone who by all accounts is universally liked — by fans, tennis officials and even opponents.

"She's always been someone that I've looked up to since I started on the tour. She's always been incredibly nice to be around," Robson said. "I think we're all going to miss her."

When the contest ended with Clijsters sailing a backhand return long, allowing Robson to convert her third match point, they met at the net. Clijsters began to extend her arm for the customary handshake, and Robson pulled her in for a hug.

"I want to thank Kim," Robson told the crowd, "for being such a great role model to me for so many years."

Less than an hour later, Clijsters was hanging out in the players' garden alongside the stadium. She shared a laugh with some friends, hugs from others, and paused to pose for a photograph alongside 14-time major champion Serena Williams, who was headed out after partnering sister Venus for a first-round victory in doubles.

Clijsters was the only woman of real significance who lost on Day 3, when the winners included No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, four-time major champion Maria Sharapova, defending champion Sam Stosur, 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and 2011 French Open champion Li Na.

"The whole tour is certainly going to miss having her around. She's been a great player and a great person," Stosur said about Clijsters. "I guess she's ready to do other things. She's definitely one of those people that you can look up to and really admire with what she's been able to achieve."

There were no such shenanigans during Clijsters vs. Robson, simply plenty of terrific play.

With her husband — Brian Lynch, an American who used to play professional basketball in Belgium — fidgeting from his front-row seat in the stands, Clijsters wound up getting the worse of lengthy exchanges. As big a forehand as Clijsters owns, Robson was out-hitting her, compiling a 16-11 edge in winners off that wing.

Clijsters went up a break in the second set, helped by a pair of double-faults by a slightly shaky Robson — nerves that were understandable, given the setting and the significance of this match. But Robson got right back in it, playing gutsy, go-for-the-lines tennis, repeatedly pounding the ball hard as can be, and seeing shots land right where she aimed.

"I really enjoyed myself out there," said Robson, who found herself singing along to the pop songs that blare over loudspeakers during changeovers.

As you might expect from a teen, the youngest player ranked in the WTA's top 100.

Try as she might, Clijsters could not quite gain the upper hand, no matter how many times she yelled "Come on!" and raised a clenched fist after winning points.

On one well-disguised drop shot by Robson, Clijsters raced forward and did her trademark splits through the doubles alley, stretching to get her racket on the ball. But her response landed in the net.

"I just wasn't good enough at the end of the match," Clijsters acknowledged.

And now? What does she look forward to the most?

The answer came quickly: "Being home."

I'm still processing all of my sad emotions at the moment. I honestly thought Kim didn't play badly it truly was a case of the other player being better and outplaying her.

But like the true champion she is she fought to the last point and even managed to save 2 match points.  I think that's one of the things I'll remember about her most, her incredible fighting nature.  As well as her friendly personality and down to earth humbleness.

I think the thing that made it more sad for me was that the match started in late afternoon and went on into the evening (due to the men's matches going on forever as per usual).

Because of that there weren't that many people left in the stands (there were more photographers then anything) I think the public was sure Kim would go through so that made me feel like Kim was cheated out of a proper send off.

I think had she played in prime-time the stadium would have been filled and she would have received a huge standing ovation.  But that's the way things go sometimes in this sport I guess.

I am really going to miss Kim's positive attitude, and the way she handled herself with the media and on and off the court.

So many players nowadays can be so prima donna-ish and Kim has never been like that she's always been fair in her assessment of her own game when she was playing well and when she wasn't and always give full credit to the other player (unlike Serena Williams who seems incapable of humbleness and graciousness).

I will never forget her win in 2009 when she brought her daughter Jada out into the stadium after winning the championship shortly after coming back from a 2 year retirement.  It was such a sweet and historic win.  I'll also always remember her finally winning in Australia and truly earning the title of "Aussie Kim".

Goodbye Kim thanks for all the wonderful memories and all you've done for the sport, good luck in doubles and mixed doubles and in all your future endeavours.  All your fans are really going to miss you.  Tennis is not going to be the same without you.

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