Monday, September 3, 2012

The brilliant career(s) of Kim Clijsters

I began watching Kim Clijsters very early in her career, and was always impressed with her tremendous athleticism. The "Clijsters splits"--she called it the straddle--will forever be associated with the Belgian player (the move was also perfected by the equally rubber-like Jelena Jankovic). Clijsters' father was a football player and her mother was a gymnast; Clijsters was always quick to say she came by her strong legs and agility through heredity.

When you move that easily and that much, however, you're bound to pay a price, and Clijsters paid one in the form of constant injury. The assaults on her body caused her to retire from the sport in 2007 because, she said, she was in significant physical pain most of the time. Having listened to her talk about her pain and the long routines she had to do to prevent further injury, I had no doubt that Clijsters was done with the game.

So imagine my surprise when--two years later, having given birth to a daughter--the Belgian star announced she was returning to the tour. In an interview, she said that she'd seen the field, and she believed she could compete and win. She was right, but the Kim Clijsters story is so much more complicated than that.

In many ways, the Clijsters story is half of a bigger story--a story of two Belgian tennis stars who came to represent two opposing sensibilities. Clijsters had obvious physical strength, she was friendly toward all, and she seemed so at home with the media hoopla that surrounds top athletes. The other part of the story, of course, was Justine Henin, the "small" Belgian who always seemed a little uncomfortable with social interaction, whose on-court behaviors occasionally got her into trouble, and whose press conferences and interviews sometimes extended into narcissistic speech-making.

Fans, I think it's safe to say, tended to go with one Belgian or the other. I enjoyed watching them both; I enjoyed watching Henin a little more, in fact. But I was definitely in the "Kimmie" camp, when it came down to a choice. But none of that matters. What matters is that--like Chris and Martina--the sum of the two parts was sometimes overtaken by the whole. For the first several years of her career, Clijsters--for all her assets--could not overcome the the fluid, creative and amazingly mentally tough Henin. Later, Clijsters would emerge with a better "part two" career, but she would never again get a chance to challenge Henin on the really big stages of tennis.

In Clijsters' first career, she appeared in five major finals. In 2001, she made it to her first of those finals at the French Open, where she lost to Jennifer Capriati, who beat her 1-6, 6-4, 12-10. Of note is the fact that Clijsters' semifinal win was a three-set victory over Henin. In 2003, the two Belgians contested the French Open title, and Henin won, 6-0, 6-4. Later that year, they met again in the final of the U.S. Open, and Henin beat Clijsters 7-5, 6-1. The night before the final, after Henin played an epic match against Capriati (losing her only set of the tournament), she told the press that she was ailing so much physically that she might withdraw from the final. Instead, she defeated her countrywoman in straight sets.

In 2004, Clijsters was defeated by Henin in three sets in the final of the Australian Open. Finally, in 2005, Clijsters won her first major. The Belgian had an easy time of it in the U.S. Open final when Mary Pierce won only four games. Clijsters had also won the U.S. Open Series, so she received double prize money ($2.2 million) for winning the Open.

The following year, Clijsters was beset with all kinds of injuries--her hip, her ankle, her wrist--and had to withdraw or retire several times. Having already announced that she would retire at the end of 2007, the Belgian star retired from her tennis career in May of 2007 instead. Clijsters married that year, and in 2008, she gave birth to a daughter, Jada.

In March of 2009--shortly after the death of her father, Leo--Clijsters announced that she was returning to professional tennis. After playing a couple of hard court tournaments, she received a wild card into the main draw of the U.S. Open, and won the tournament, defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the final, and taking out both Venus and Serena Williams along the way. The next year, Clijsters--ranked number 4 in the world--defended her U.S. Open title when she beat Vera Zvonareva in the final.

In the meantime, Justine Henin--who had abruptly retired from the sport in May of 2008-- returned to the tour in 2010. She made it to the final of the Australian Open, won a couple of titles, but was unable to beat Clijsters in the few matches they played against one another. It was during her Wimbledon round of 16 match against Clijsters, in fact, that Henin and slipped and fractured a ligament in her elbow. That slip would cost her her second career; Clijsters' long-time rival would retire for good in January of 2011.

Clijsters--long known as "Aussie Kim" because of her former romantic relationship with Lleyton Hewitt--gave that nickname meaning when she won the 2011 Australian Open, defeating Li Na in the final. She also returned to the number 1 spot, but missed the clay court season when she hurt her ankle while dancing at her cousin's wedding. Later in the year, Clijsters sustained an abdominal injury, then hurt her ankle again, and she withdrew from Wimbledon.

The Belgian rolled her ankle at the 2012 Australian Open, and again had to skip the clay court season. Once again, Clijsters' was fighting injury almost all the time, and she decided she would call it quits after the U.S. Open. She made it to the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and to the quarterfinals at the Olympic Games. Earlier this week, she lost to Laura Robson in the first round in Flushing Meadows. Her exit from the tournament was an emotional event for both fans and the press; Clijsters herself appeared at peace with her career, and she enjoyed a very affectionate send-off.

Though not as controversial as her rival, Henin, Clijsters nevertheless got under the skin of some fans and members of the sports media, who questioned her chronic "niceness" and some of her ultra-generous actions. When she won the U.S. Open the first time, she bought everyone in her hometown a beer. After another big win, she paid for a lot of champagne so that others could celebrate with her, leading one tennis writer to dub her "Champagne Kimmie." These behaviors may indeed stem from an excessive need to be liked, which can lead to the opposite effect.

I never made a judgment about any of that, though I understand why others did. I did make a judgment, however, about the media's extreme glorification of Clijsters' motherhood. Yes, it is impressive to have a baby and then return to the tour and win majors, and I give all credit to Clijsters (and to Evonne Goolagong before her). But the media behaved as if no woman had ever before given birth. They just couldn't stop talking about it. And when Clijsters herself reminded them that she had a lot of money and could afford a nanny and housekeepers and all kinds of things that other women couldn't afford, it didn't matter. They just kept on with "Clijsters blah-blah mother blah-blah-baby-blah blah" until some of us were driven crazy by it.

Clijsters was also a problematic player in that, despite her talent and extreme athleticism, she was often given to great lapses during matches, especially matches she played against Henin in the first part of her career. You just never knew when Clijsters was going to "go off" and lose a match she probably should have won (we could say that about a lot of players).

My only real problem with Clijsters was her collusion with Mattel to make a Barbie of "scary thin" Kim (with little Jada to accompany it). With girls getting a constant message to be thin, lose weight and look like models, the Clijsters Barbie was an affront to every effort made to encourage women to accept their bodies as they are, and to stop being obsessed with body image issues. The likeness was especially annoying because Clijsters herself has never been model-thin; rather, she has a sturdy, muscular body.

So what did Kim Clijsters accomplish in her years on the tour? A lot. She won 41 singles titles and 11 doubles titles in her 15-year career. Twice, she was named WTA Player of the Year, and she also received the ITF World Women's Champion title. Clijsters has received so many awards, in fact, that it would take to long to list them here. She held the number 1 ranking in both singles and doubles, with the top ranking in singles coming in both phases of her career. Clijsters holds a career match record of 522-126. And though she lost the big ones, she holds a 13-12 record against Justine Henin.

I'm going to miss her. I liked watching her play, and I liked watching her win. Clijsters' rivalry with her talented countrywoman made the tour more interesting, and her ongoing good humor generally made me smile. As she grew older, Clijsters handled interviews and press conferences with increasing intelligence and poise. She was also the face of Fila, always going for more of an old-school look than for a fashion statement; Fila and Clijsters seemed to be made for each other.

The 29-year-old Clijsters leaves the sport as a great champion and a beloved figure. Had she not returned to the tour after her first retirement, she would have still been a beloved figure, but her  missed potential would have defined her as a tennis player. However, the second part of Clijsters' career allowed her to transcend her weaknesses, even while she continued to strain and fracture various parts of her body.

After Clijsters lost her mixed doubles match at the U.S. Open--her last professional tennis match ever--the television cameras tracked her walk out of the stadium. Closely escorted by security personnel, the three-time U.S. Open champion made her way through crowds of fans wishing her well. She replied to a few of them, and she looked a bit dazed as she smiled and let the guards guide her off of the grounds. The popular Belgian player had finally ended what turned out to be a brilliant career.


bill said...

This is a terrific retrospective. What a full life for Kim. It's jarring to think that she's "just" 29. Thanks, Diane.

Diane said...

Thank you, Bill. I'm glad she came back and finished her work.

Daniel said...

Well said...and nice to see someone spell judgment with only 1 'e' :)

Diane said...


Karen said...

Lovely write up Diane. However, just a quick correction. Clijsters beat Li Na in the Australian Open final in 2011. She played Vera in the USO of 2010

Diane said...

Thank you, Karen--and thanks for catching that. I have no idea where that came from or why I didn't see it in a proofread. I guess I'll plead hurricane stress, but really--my brain was a bit addled, anyway:)

Karen said...

No worries Diane and believe me I know what you mean about hurricane stress. Every single time I hear that there is a storm in the horizon or that it is near to where I live I start to have panic attacks. I will be glad to see the back of storm season, that much I can tell you. I am still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Ugh