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No Regrets: A Second Farewell to Kim Clijsters
This isn’t Kim Clijsters’ first ‘last Wimbledon.. For several years, she had intended 2007 to be her final season before retirement. Sadly, injuries prevented her from playing at the All-England Club that year, but now the Belgian has another chance to say farewell to this great tournament. As she makes her final run here, we thought we’d take the time to look back at her long and storied career.
The First Career: 1999-2007
There’s always been something very dramatic about Clijsters. An elastic and explosive athlete, she burst onto the scene in the late 90s, stretching and straining for ball after ball with a tenacity and intensity that would become trademarks. Alongside stunning defense, the Belgian brought shocking forehands to rival those of her idol, Steffi Graf. If her playing style was dramatic, however, her career — punctuated by topsy-turvy matches at the highest levels — was even more so.
The rollercoaster ride began in earnest in 1999, when Clijsters was just a talented teenager. A set up and serving at 5-4 in the 3rd round of the US Open that year against another rising star, Serena Williams, Clijsters could have been forgiven for thinking that this might just have been her time to break out at the Slams. Unfortunately for Kim, it was not to be. Williams would claw her way back into the match, and go on to win her maiden major, while Clijsters was left ruing missed opportunities. It would become an all-too familiar pattern over the next few years.
Extremely athletic, Kim Clijsters, in almost a
From the spring of 2001 until the summer of 2005, the Belgian would reach the fourth round or better at twelve majors. In no fewer than eight of these tournaments, she would go out by losing the deciding set in a three-set match (she won four matches that went the distance at this level, but never twice at the same event). Time and again, in fact, defeat seemed to have been snatched spectacularly from the jaws of victory.
The most famous, the most devastating perhaps, came at the 2003 Australian Open semis, where Clijsters had two match points against Serena Williams, serving at 5-2 in the final set, before her game cracked. She lost the next five games in a row, and the match with it. She had her share of victories, of course, and defeats in straight sets, but it was these matches that Kim Clijsters let slip out of her hands that would define her early career as much as her tennis itself, leaving her labeled as a choker, someone whose talent greatly exceeded her presence of mind in big slam matches.
That might have been it for her. Injuries had started to plague the Belgian from a young age, after all, as her relentless effort took its toll on her body. In 2004-5, Clijsters missed four consecutive grand slam tournaments due to injuries, and fell to a low of 134 in the world, after having reached number one (in both singles and doubles) in late 2003.
Clijsters was not much older than this when she first turned pro in 1997.
As it was, a return to good health in 2005 allowed Clijsters the chance to change her legacy, and prove she was more than a perennial nearly-woman. It would be a chance she would take in great style at the US Open that year. In a remarkable reversal of past patterns, she came back from a set and a break down to beat Venus Williams in the quarters, then defeated Sharapova in the semis after failing to convert five match points in the second set, before winning the final against Mary Pierce in straight sets.
This victory, coming as it did after so many close defeats (four of them in major finals), might have marked a turning point in Kim’s career, but a succession of injuries -and her magnificent compatriot, Justine Henin, conspired to prevent her from winning another slam before her retirement in 2007.
It was hardly a bad career, by any standards. She could look to her US Open trophy as only the most prestigious of her dozens of titles, including two at the year end championships, and several WTA tier 1 events. And yet there was always something of a ‘what if’ whenever Clijsters’ name was mentioned. What if she had kept going? What if she hadn’t succumbed to so many injuries (she missed 8 of 26 between her first grand slam final in 2001 and her retirement six years later)? What if she’d found that mental toughness four years earlier? What if she came back?
A Second Career: 2009-2012
This last question would be answered in 2009, when Clijsters made an unexpected return to the tour. Amazingly, the Belgian was able to win the US Open as a wild card, after having played only two tournaments since coming back to pro tennis. Her most memorable scalp was a highly dramatic (big surprise) straight sets victory over Serena Williams (another big surprise) in the semi-final, in which Williams was beaten on a point penalty, following a foot fault call with which she ‘disagreed.’
In that tournament and in the two other majors she’s won since then, Clijsters has beaten virtually every top player in the women’s game, from the Williams sisters to Wozniacki, Stosur, Radwanska, Li and Zvonareva. Notably, the Belgian has triumphed in three of her five three-set matches at the quarter-final stage onwards in majors since 2009.
Click photo: Clijsters kicked off her second career with a US Open win in only her third tournament. Here she is at matchpoint against Caroline Wozniacki.
This second career, as she prefers to call it, has been the most impressive return to the sport after a long absence that I can think of. Though injuries both on and off court (such as the ankle injury that derailed her 2011 clay court season, sustained while dancing at a wedding — one can only presume she boogies with the same intensity as she plays tennis) have still hampered her, Clijsters can honestly say now that she has left nothing on the court, something perhaps she couldn’t have said in 2007.
Click photo: Extremely athletic and powerful, Clijsters has always been one of the best movers on the
If she had retired then, I think she would now be viewed as one of the great underachievers in tennis history. As it is, Clijsters has become an inspiration to all those who’ve not managed to fulfill their potential in silverware, by proving that it’s never too late to turn things around. Just as importantly, she’s shown that it is possible to combine a family life with a pro tennis career, which is no mean feat given today’s tough schedules.
Injuries and the demands of life on tour may have convinced her that this is the time to call it quits for good, but Kim Clijsters is still giving it her all while she can. Though her last hurrah at the Wimbledon Championships ended on Monday in a 6-1, 6-1 fourth round defeat, the two time semi-finalist (2003, 2006) remains phlegmatic and gracious: “there was absolutely nothing I could have done today to have won that match…my opponent [Angelique Kerber] was better on every level.”
Perhaps it wasn’t the fairytale ending, capturing the big one, the one that got away. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly a vintage Clijsters performance either, but she still played a good tournament, and surely won’t leave here with her memories tarnished (I can’t help but think at this moment of Pete Sampras’ last ever appearance on court at Wimbledon in 2002, when he lost ignominiously to world number 145 George Bastl in the second round).
However well Clijsters does between now and the end of the US Open, which she has stated will be her final tournament, she will be able to hold her head high. “That’s something I’ll never regret. I’ll never say that I didn’t work hard enough or didn’t practice hard enough. So I don’t think I’ll feel sorry about anything when I leave.”
It is left then for us to feel sorry that she’s leaving, but also to wish her well for the future.
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Dancing Like the Stars
There are three types of tennis players. Those who can hit and move. Those who can hit and not move as well. And those who are ranked below the first two. In the pros, the first category features versatile players like Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer. In the second category are hard-hitting and hard-serving ones like Roddick, Isner, and Raonic. In the third are the ones on the outer courts. At the pro level and every other level, moving well will take you farther.— Marcus Paul Cootsona
David Brouwer talks about the concept of vision — vision for your young tennis players. There are different types of teaching pros and tennis parents for that matter. One would be those who give a lot of tips and technical information but perhaps lack a real plan for future development. The other would be more of a visionary pro or parent, one with a long term plan for the development of the child. David introduces you to three developing juniors to reinforce his point.
ProStrokes 2.0 — Juan Ignacio Chela, Backhand
A pro since 1998, Juan Ignacio Chela has experienced sporadic success on tour. Hitting and playing fairly conventional tennis (strong semi western grip forehand, conventional two-handed backhand), Chela’s best surface, not surprisingly, is clay. Growing up and living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Chela was taught as a junior on the predominant clay courts that are the norm in South America. He has had two quarter-final appearances at Roland Garros, (’04 and ’11) and another at the U.S. Open in 2007. Chela’s ranking has fluctuated between a high of #15 in ’04 and a low of #146 in ’08. Chela is currently hovering around #80 in the world. New this issue, Chela's backhand.
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