If you are a tennis nerd like me, the sport’s annual brief post Wimbledon lull can be tough. However, yesterday saw one of the game’s most beloved players take her rightful place in Newport, Rhode Island’s International Tennis Hall of Fame. Here is a look back at the incomparable Kim Clijsters.
Clijsters is one of the more unique talents in recent memory. She announced her arrival by reaching the finals of the 2001 French Open as a teenager. It did not take long to realize that this player had a chance to be very special. She possessed a well-rounded game with no obvious weakness. Thus, she was successful on all surfaces. That alone makes her different from many of today’s players as well as peers from her era. Her worst grand slam was Wimbledon where she still managed to reach the semifinals twice.
Her raw athleticism allowed her to be one of few players that could match the Williams sisters shot for shot and occasionally beat them. She will perhaps best be remembered for doing the splits on court to chase down every ball she could.
For a while, Clijsters was destined for the “can’t win the big one” label. She lost her first four Grand Slam singles finals before finally breaking through at the 2005 U.S. Open. While it looked like it would be the first of many Grand Slam trophies for the Belgian, she abruptly retired in early 2007 at the age of just 24 to start a family.
It was her 2009 comeback that sealed Clijsters’ place in the Hall of Fame. In just her third event back after the birth of her first child, Clijsters became only the third mother in the modern era to win a singles major. She once again triumphed at the U.S. Open in New York beating both Venus and Serena Williams along the way.
Clijsters continued playing on tour until late 2012. She added a third U.S. Open and an Australian Open to her trophy case. In addition to her singles exploits, Clijsters has two doubles Grand Slams and became the doubles World No. 1 in 2003.
Seeing top singles players play doubles is so rare these days. The game has become too much of a physical grind. Along with the Williams sisters, Clijsters is more than likely one of the last players we will ever see to play both singles and doubles at a world-class level on a consistent basis.
It was not just a unique career trajectory and the fact that there was nothing she could not do on a tennis court that made Clijsters stand out. Her off court demeanor, was just as memorable and important.
As an individual sport, the pro tennis tour is not great for friendships. It is hard to be friends with someone and try to defeat them on the court 15 minutes later. In fact, being standoffish is almost a prerequisite for winning big on the ladies tour. Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Steffi Graf, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are all famous for their icy demeanor towards opponents.
However, Clijsters was able to strike the rarest of balances. There are countless stories of her kindness even in the heat of battle. Prior to her 2011 Australian Open final against China’s Li Na, television cameras caught the eight time winner of the WTA’s sportsmanship award chatting and laughing with her opponent just seconds before taking the court.
That image always stuck with me, I was unsuccessful in finding a photo or video. Even so, I had never seen anything like that before and have not since. Perhaps fellow 2017 Hall of Fame inductee Andy Roddick said it best when he said “if you have a problem with Kim Clijsters I blame you.”
It is easy to see why Clijsters remains so highly thought of all over the world. On a personal note, she was the only tennis player my late grandfather (who hated tennis) would ever sit down and watch. He told me he simply liked the way she handled herself on the court and in front of the press. Clearly, many other people felt the same way. There will never be another Kim Clijsters. This weekend acted as a much deserved final thank you to her from the entire tennis world.