Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Kim Clijsters on saying goodbye to the U.S. Open for good

When Kim Clijsters first retired from tennis in 2007 in order to have her first child, she left as one of the best players in the women’s game. She had reached No. 1, , and had won 34 career singles titles—but only one of those was a Grand Slam title—the 2005 US Open..

But since coming back to the sport in 2009, her “second’ tennis career has been even more impressive, and as Clijsters prepares to walk away from the sport for good following this year’s US Open—a tournament where she had great success and many sweet memories—the 29-year-old Belgian has cemented her status as one of the best women’s players of all time, with credentials that should earn her a place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Clijsters has been one of the WTA Tour’s genuine power players, especially at her peak, reaching world No. 1 for the first time in 2003. She used a combination of strength, fitness and speed to rise to the top of the game, and became especially famous for her splits, which she often fell into as she chased down balls with her sparkling defense. She still has the talent to compete with the best, but when she announced this year that the US Open would officially be her last tournament, she cited the physical toll of the type of game she plays and her desire to have more children as reasons to end her brilliant career.

“(I am) too old to play the game that I want to play physically,” Clijsters said. “I've put my body through enough strain and everything. The whole lifestyle, that's what I'm dealing with now, the lifestyle I've had for the last 15, 20 years.

Clijsters has been known throughout the years as much for her friendly, off-court personality towards everyone as for her on-court domination. She was affectionately nicknamed ‘Miss Congeniality’ for the way she carries herself. She says she has not thought about what kind of legacy she leaves on the game, but she is happy she was always able to stay the same person through the fame and demands on her time.

“I think for me the most important thing is I've always followed my heart. I've always done what I felt was right. I've always stayed true to who I am,” she said. “Players change. There's so many other things involved than just tennis and practicing. I think you see players kind of losing the true sense of life, and of the sport. “

Clijsters always has had a love for the sport, and that was what brought her back to tennis after her first “retirement.” It was after training for an exhibition at Wimbledon in 2009 that Clijsters began feeling the itch to compete again. She had walked away from the game ranked No. 4 in May 2007, married American basketball player Brian Lynch shortly thereafter and gave birth to her first daughter, Jada, in February 2008.

Her comeback to the tour could hardly have gone any better. She defeated Caroline Wozniacki to win the 2009 US Open, becoming the first mother since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980 to win a Grand Slam singles title. She had a memorable on-court celebration with her daughter (Jada still refers to pictures of the US Open celebration as “mommy winning that trophy’.) 

Though Jada was too young to understand what was going on, it was a memorable family moment for Clijsters and all who witnessed the moment, and another celebration for the determination and success of Clijsters, who was also an inspiration and model for many working mothers across the country.

Here was a woman who already had it all – she had been one of the best athletes in the world, one of the nicest people, a close family – and managed to balance it all with her return to training, her family accompanying her to tournaments and then immediately found success again in her professional life.

“I didn't expect obviously when I started back after having Jada, I never expected that things would be going so well so soon,” she said. “It's been an incredible adventure these last three, four years. I feel like I've been able to kind of finish that chapter of my tennis year on a good note.”

Clijsters repeated as US Open champion in 2010, this time defeating Vera Zvonareva in the final. She was No. 3 by the end of 2010 and continued her run through the first part of 2011, winning the Australian Open for her first Grand Slam title outside New York, and returned to No. 1 in February. She stayed there for just a week but it was a significant feat; she became the first mother to ever be ranked No. 1.

Injuries began to mount for Clijsters in 2011; she injured her ankle at her cousin’s wedding, after stepping on someone’s foot in high heels, and then missed most of the clay-court season due to shoulder and wrist injuries. She was able to play the French Open but missed Wimbledon with a foot injury and then an abdominal injury caused her to miss a chance to three-peat at the US Open. She did not play again the rest of 2011.

This year, the injury bug hit her again, but she has been effective when she has been on court, going 19-6, reached the semifinals in Australia, fourth round at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the Olympics—her first career Olympic appearance. But a hip injury and ankle injury have also plagued her, as well as the abdominal muscle she pulled last year.

She said she stopped counting down to her retirement last year, and knows it will be different coming to play at the US Open for the final time here, but is happy that she is going out leaving nothing behind.

“I have no regrets. I know I always gave myself 100 percent,” she said. “The US Open will be a special occasion for me to be playing there and to end my career there. I'm sure it will be emotional.”


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