Mel C. Evans/Associated Press
Mel C. Evans/Associated Press
NEW YORK - 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.”
Joining Robson with a surprise victory was American wild-card entry Mallory Burdette, the NCAA runner-up who reached the third round in her Grand Slam debut by eliminating 69th-ranked Lucie Hradecka 6-2, 6-4.
Until recently, Burdette planned to take premed courses as a senior at Stanford in pursuit of a career in psychiatry.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” the 252nd-ranked Burdette said.
Could get even wilder: She next faces Sharapova, a 6-0, 6-1 winner Wednesday night over 78th-ranked Lourdes Dominguez Lino of Spain.
Earlier on Ashe, the highest-ranked American man, John Isner, let out a big exhale of relief while waving to the crowd after getting past an argumentative Xavier Malisse 6-3, 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (9) in the first round.
“I know in the nitty-gritty times of a match, I always have that confidence and all those wins in my back pocket,” said Isner, who is 37-13 in tiebreakers this season.
The 6-foot-9 Isner hit 20 aces and ended things with a service winner on his third match point. That came after Malisse pushed an easy backhand volley into the net, then grabbed the ball and shoved it in his mouth and chomped on it as though it were an apple.
The 57th-ranked Malisse, a 2002 Wimbledon semifinalist, was louder and angrier during a few exchanges with the chair umpire and even members of the crowd, earning a warning for profanity.
“Half of the crowd doesn’t understand what’s going on,” Malisse said. “They yell. We’re in New York. So you’re going to get more yells. That’s fine by me. ... (But) I’m going to say something back.”
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.”