Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Kim Clijsters: A Career Retrospective

Fellow retiree Roddick, Kim Clijsters spent much of her career in the shadow of a more overtly talented and more decorated rival.  
In the case of the Belgian, this rival arose in the form of her compatriot Justine Henin, who swept to seven major titles while Clijsters collected just one before her initial retirement in 2007.  
Returning to the Tour two years later with a husband and daughter to support her, she quadrupled that total to transform her legacy from the anti-Henin to a champion in her own right.  
Known for her engaging personality throughout her career, Clijsters brought a fluid brand of athleticism to women’s tennis likely equaled by none in her generation but Serena.  We count down the ten signature moments in a career of two halves.

10. 2012 Australian Open:  Despite battling injuries for much of 2011, “Aussie Kim” came within a set of the final in the first major of 2012.  Saving four match points against Li Na in the fourth round, she clawed her way past her opponent in the previous Australian Open final in a three-set rollercoaster.   And her commanding quarterfinal upset of world #1 Wozniacki represented a fitting conclusion to her last Melbourne appearance.  Although Azarenka solved her in an uneven semifinal, Clijsters left Australia having exceeded expectations and provided her fans with a worthy memory to close her career there.

9. 2010 Miami:  More impressive than her victory over an injured Venus Williams in the final was a three-set semifinal epic against Justine Henin. Betrayed by the oscillating quality of play, the nerves of both rivals played a central role in a match filled with stunning momentum shifts.  Having allowed a substantial lead to slip away, Clijsters later rallied from 2-5 in the third set and saved two match points before prevailing in a third-set tiebreak.  Earlier in the fortnight, she also dominated defending champion Azarenka and rising star Kvitova, holding the younger generation in check for the moment.

8. 2003 year-end championships:  Defending her title from the previous year (see below), Clijsters won all five of her matches at this prestigious event.  She rallied from losing the first set against Capriati and Mauresmo en route to the final, where she crushed the Frenchwoman for the loss of only two games.  Curiously, Clijsters finished both her semifinal and her final with a bagel set, showcasing an apparent killer instinct that many felt absent throughout her career.  These victories over older rivals demonstrated her readiness to assert herself at the summit of the women’s game.

7. 2002 year-end championships:  For the first notable trophy of her career, the Belgian swept through her elite opposition in stunningly authoritative fashion.  Handed a retirement by Venus, Clijsters lost just six total games en route to the final, including the most resounding victory of her career over Henin.  In the final, she overcame Serena Williams in her home territory of Los Angeles after two relatively straightforward sets.  At her best on hard courts and during the second half, she would collect three total titles at the year-end championship, more than anyone since Graf in the 1990s.

6. 2001 Roland Garros:  Just before her eighteenth birthday, Clijsters stood toe to toe with the more experienced Capriati in the first major final of her career.  Through five rounds at Roland Garros, she lost just a single set, and her comeback against Henin—the future queen of the terre battue—resulted in her best performance ever at a European major.  Clijsters looked likely to become yet another teenage WTA champion when she swept through the first set.  Once the match extended to a final set, though, one might have expected the veteran to comfortably outlast the novice.  To the contrary, Clijsters battled to 10-10 in the final set, twice breaking Capriati when she served for the match, before she exhausted her last reserves of energy.  This match remains among the longest and most thrilling Roland Garros women’s finals of the Open era.

5. 2005 Miami:  The only woman of her generation to complete the coveted Indian Wells-Miami double, the Belgian did not drop a set en route to her first of two Miami crowns.  In five of her seven matches, she lost five or fewer games, while her tournament culminated with victories over the impressive trio of Dementieva, Mauresmo, and Sharapova.  Having won Indian Wells the previous week, Clijsters had secured 14 victories in less than a month, a tribute to the durability on which she built her comeback and other successes.  Although major titles continued to elude her grasp at this stage, the Indian Wells-Miami doubles foreshadowed her breakthrough at the US Open by underscoring her elevated performance level in North America.  Eleven of her fourteen career titles at majors, Tier I (Premier Mandatory/Premier Five) tournaments, and the year-end championships would come on this continent.  

4. 2010 US Open:  As in many of her title surges, Clijsters encountered her sternest test in the semifinal of her championship defense.  Able to edge past future US Open champion in a three-set quarterfinal, she hovered on the brink of defeat against former US Open champion Venus Williams a round later.  Left helpless during the first half of that match by the American’s impenetrable serve, Clijsters clung desperately to her own delivery and forced a second-set tiebreak.  Once she escaped that perilous turning point, she echoed her opponent in failing to sustain a lead, but an exquisite lob to break Venus in the ninth game preceded a series of pulsating rallies in the tenth as she served out the match.  Overcoming her nerves to find confident tennis when she most needed it, the Belgian rode the ensuing momentum through a dominant victory over Vera Zvonareva in a final that lasted less than an hour.

3. 2011 Australian Open:  A three-time champion at the US Open, Clijsters bolstered her reputation immensely by capturing another of the sport’s four marquee tournaments.  In Melbourne, she delivered a statement of intent with an opening double bagel against former #1 Safina and did not lose a set en route to the final.  Among the most impressive of her first six victories was a quarterfinal against Agnieszka Radwanska, whose intelligent style tested the limits of the Belgian’s patience and focus.  Clijsters entered the final against first-time major finalist Li Na as the clear favorite, only to see the fierce Chinese veteran snatch away the first set and nearly the match before she could collect herself.  Refusing to crumble under the unexpected pressure, Clijsters gradually slowed the tempo of the match and the underdog’s momentum with it, striking for a timely break midway through the third set and serving out the final at love for her fourth and last major title.

2. 2005 US Open:  Thwarted in four finals at three different majors, this fan favorite must have wondered (like Murray, until lately) whether she ever would break through on the grandest stages.  But Clijsters accumulated confidence from victories over Venus and Sharapova in the penultimate rounds before crushing Mary Pierce in the final.  After losing the first set to Venus in a quarterfinal, she recovered to win eight of the last nine games in an impressive display of resilience.  The opposite dynamic described her semifinal against Maria, which she initially dominated before needing to escape a mid-match surge by the Russian and reassert herself.  Without those tests of her mettle, Clijsters might not have found the courage to cross the threshold on which she had stumbled so often.  Curiously, she never would lose a major final again, winning four straight over the next six years.

1. 2009 US Open:  Mere weeks after launching her comeback from a two-year retirement, Clijsters entered the only major that she had won before as an unranked wildcard.  With each victory that she earned, the attention mounted and the pressure as well.  Perhaps fortunate to escape Bartoli in the first week, the former US Open champion survived a bizarre three-setter against Venus at the start of the second week.  (In fact, Clijsters won three-setters from the American en route to all three of her US Open titles.)  After the pair traded bagels, the Belgian slipped away with the third set and never suffered another dip in form as she won her last three matches in straight sets.  Foot fault or no fault, she thoroughly outplayed Serena in their semifinal, showcasing an explosive athleticism that must have contributed to the frustration ultimately released by her rival in such an infamous manner.  While Wozniacki claimed an early lead in the final, Clijsters never seemed seriously threatened against the first-time major finalist.  She converted championship with a bold forehand-smash combination and memorably brought her daughter onto the court for a photo shoot with the trophy.

Setting her sights on the Olympics this year as the last significant goal of her career, Clijsters did not earn a medal but produced a creditable quarterfinal result despite the injuries that crippled her 2012 campaign.  She appropriately chose the US Open to bid tennis farewell and appeared to genuinely enjoy her last match as a professional tennis player in mixed doubles with Bob Bryan.  Her last shot struck and last autograph signed, her features relaxed into a smile of satisfaction.  Whatever she pursues after tennis, Clijsters will enter the next phase of her life knowing that she made the most of the last.

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