“I say, if you have a problem with Kim, I blame you without even hearing both sides of the story,” said Roddick, seated alongside his fellow inductee in the Hall of Fame’s museum. Nearby was a small tribute to Clijsters with tiny bottles filled with mementos from her career: blades of grass from Wimbledon; snippets from a family weeping willow tree in her hometown, Bree, Belgium; a piece of natural gut string from one of her rackets; and a fragment from one of the shirts she wore during her final U.S. Open in 2012.
Clijsters, who lives part-time in Belmar, N.J., with her husband, the former Villanova basketball standout Brian Lynch, and their three children, was just shy of her 24th birthday when she first retired from the sport in May 2007. When she returned nearly two years later, she was mother to a daughter, Jada.
In just her third tournament back, having received a wild card to enter the main draw, Clijsters won the U.S. Open after defeating both Venus and Serena Williams and then Caroline Wozniacki in the final. She became the first wild-card champion in U.S. Open history and the first mother to capture a major tournament since Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon in 1980.
Clijsters defended her title the next year, amassing a 21-match winning streak at Flushing Meadows. In 2011 she regained the No. 1 ranking before retiring the next year.
Clijsters said she was delighted to see how many current players had returned to the tour after having children, including Victoria Azarenka, Casey Dellacqua, Kateryna Bondarenko, Cara Black and Evgeniya Rodina. Serena Williams plans to do the same next year, following the birth of her first child.
“I’m a little different from Serena and Vika because when I retired I thought I was done,” Clijsters said. “I didn’t plan to play tennis again, but it just happened. I’m so happy for these players and I’m amazed at how passionate Serena still is about her tennis. But I also hope they all enjoy the experience of being a first-time mom and not rush into anything.”
Clijsters is mother to 9-year-old Jada (who has no memory of dancing around the Arthur Ashe Stadium court and clutching her mother’s trophy after Clijsters’s win in 2009), 3-year-old Jack and 9-month-old Blake. Jada prefers basketball to tennis, and Jack has flirted with soccer, “but he preferred to sit on the ground and pick dandelions,” his mother said, laughing. She also owns a tennis academy in Belgium, does some television commentary and plays the occasional Legends event.
It was during one such event, at Wimbledon two weeks ago, that Clijsters became an internet sensation. Playing with Rennae Stubbs against Conchita Martínez and Andrea Jaeger, Clijsters decided to spice up the action by eliciting a dialogue with fans seated courtside.
After serving an ace to Jaeger, she asked the crowd where she should hit her next serve. A fan named Chris Quinn suggested a body serve, prompting Clijsters to invite him down to receive such a serve. She even lent him a regulation white skirt from her own bag, falling to the court in peals of laughter as he struggled into the clothes.
“What went through my mind was that I was pulling up the pants of my 3-year-old, but this was a grown man with huge calves,” Clijsters said.
The magnitude of being elected the Hall of Fame is not lost on Clijsters, who will have many family members on hand for the ceremony. But she will be missing her father, Leo, who died of cancer in January 2009.
“This is a real chance to look back at all I have learned in my life,” she said. “Sometimes, like when my dad died, you feel like life can’t get any worse. Then you realize everything turns out O.K.
“Life, like tennis, really is all about passion,” Clijsters added. “Sometimes you just have to stand there and take it all in.”Continue reading the main story
Citizenship: BELBorn: June 8, 1983 in Bilzen, Belgium Played: Right-handed, Two-handed backhand
KIM CLIJSTERS ALWAYS SAW THE BIG PICTURE
There was a refreshing, seamless quality to Kim Clijsters, a smooth, unpretentious manner that enabled her to manage the ups and downs of the tennis life with grace and kindness. Whether in victory or defeat, through injuries and tragedy, life as a player, life as a child or life as a parent, the public Clijsters never lost sight of the big picture, never forgot that she was fortunate to earn a living as an athlete and that tennis’ competitive pressures were indeed a privilege. Most of all, Clijsters demonstrated that what mattered most wasn’t if you won, but how you conducted yourself.
A major reason for Clijsters’ no-nonsense attitude was that she’d grown up in an athletic household. Her father, Lei, had been a professional soccer player. Her mother, Els, was a national gymnastics champion. Certainly her parents’ prowess in these sports helped Clijsters learn much about such fundamental concepts as footwork and balance – including perhaps the trademark splits move she would employ throughout her playing career. No doubt growing up in that kind of environment also showed Clijsters the kind of commitment it took to excel at a sport.
But in a deeper sense, as she came of age as a tennis player, Clijsters absorbed how competition and family were woven together. It only made sense that years later, she would refer to her longstanding coach, Carl Maes, as a big brother. And it was also fitting that her husband, basketball player Brian Lynch, had also come from a sports background. Tennis, a solitary effort for so many, was to Clijsters very much a communal activity, bound up in the values she’d learned on a daily basis.
A RAPID ASCENT
In June 1999, the month Clijsters turned 16, she won three matches in the Wimbledon qualifying event and another three in the main draw, including a win over tenth-ranked Amanda Coetzer. Instantly, Clijsters’ superb movement and fluid all-court game earned praise from such titans as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. Her ranking having soared from 409 at the start of the year to 47 at the end, Clijsters would win the WTA Newcomer of the Year Award.
Two years later came another major moment. Seeded 12th at Roland Garros, Clijsters made it all the way to the finals, her run highlighted by an impressive comeback win in the semis over her fellow Belgian, Justine Henin. In the championship match she took on American Jennifer Capriati, who previously that year had won the Australian Open. But at the start, Clijsters was thoroughly in command, taking the first set 6-1. Capriati rebounded and leveled it. The third was one for the ages, Capriati at last squeaking it out, 12-10. Devastated as Clijsters was, she displayed exceptional poise in defeat.
Throughout 2002, 2003 and early 2004, Clijsters consolidated her position among the game’s elite. In 2002, at the season-ending WTA Tour Championships, Clijsters handily took the title, beating Henin and attaining the rare feat of defeating Venus and Serena Williams at the same event. The next year saw her reach two the finals at Roland Garros and the US Open, successfully defend her WTA Tour Championships title and also reach the pinnacle. The morning of August 11, 2003, Clijsters woke up as the world’s number one ranked women’s tennis player. Proof of Clijsters’ versatility came a week later when she had also attained the number one ranking in doubles.
Movement was the cornerstone of Clijsters’ game. She would smother opponents with footwork, in thorough command of all corners of the court, be it her ability to track down hard-to-reach shots or take charge with sustained power and precision. Added to this was Clijsters’ competitive temperament. As one of her major rivals, Serena Williams, said, “She’s not only a good tennis player, but she’s a great person and I think she’ll make a great champion because she is always positive. Even if inside she’s dying, she always looks positive, she always smiles.”
GRAND TRIUMPH, GRAND EXIT
But in early 2004, just after Clijsters had lost in the finals of the Australian Open, she suffered a left wrist injury that eventually required surgery and her withdrawal from the next four Grand Slam tournaments. Thus commenced what would become a frequent Clijsters cycle: exile and return.
The returns, though, were exceptionally productive. In her 2005 comeback year, Clijsters would win nine singles titles. One stood out from all the others: Victory at the US Open, Clijsters’ first Grand Slam singles title. Arguably the most important match of her career had come in the quarterfinals. Against Venus Williams, Clijsters trailed 6-4, 4-2. She then went on a tear, winning 11 of the next 13 games. There next came a tough three-setter versus Maria Sharapova in the semis and, at last, versus Mary Pierce in the finals, deliverance. As she sat alongside the champion’s trophy, as she pondered what it meant to have lost her first four Grand Slam singles finals and spent months with a plaster cast on her wrist, Clijsters said, “you have to be patient . . . you have to have your family, your friends, to help you, to push you.”
Less than two years after that triumph, though, Clijsters announced her retirement. The left wrist had been reinjured, making Clijsters unable to defend her US Open title. “It has been more than fun, but the racquets are being hung up,” said Clijsters in May 2007. “To retire before the age of 24, it is very young, but it was so beautiful.”
Clijsters and Lynch, a former Villanova basketball player who at the time was playing in Belgium, were married on July 14, 2007. On February 27, 2008, the world was delighted to learn that Clijsters had given birth to a daughter, Jada Elle. Little did mother and child know they would soon delight the world.
BACK AGAIN – AND BETTER THAN EVER
In March 2009, two months after her father’s death, Clijsters announced her return. She would play a special event at Wimbledon in May to break in the All England Club’s new roof, followed by World Team Tennis and three WTA events in August, including the US Open. “I don’t need to be number one again,” said Clijsters. “I have done that and I don’t need to do it again. I am just going to see how things evolve.”
Charles Darwin couldn’t have asked for a better form of evolution. There followed an amazing 18 months. In September 2009, Clijsters won the US Open, a run that included wins over both Williams sisters – and even more charming, 18-month old Jada joining her on-court for the awards ceremony. Clijsters had become the first mother to win a Grand Slam singles title since Evonne Goolagong had won Wimbledon in 1980. A year later, another successful New York campaign, Clijsters at this stage having won 21 straight matches at the US Open. And then, 2011 began with victory Down Under. Referring to her prior romance with Australian tennis player Lleyton Hewitt, Clijsters afterwards said, “Now I finally you can call me Aussie Kim because I won the title.” In February, Clijsters was once again ranked number one in the world.
Alas, soon after, dancing at a wedding, Clijsters suffered an ankle injury. There would be no US Open title defense in 2011. By the summer of 2012, Clijsters knew that year’s US Open would be her last. She would lose there in the second round. Following that loss, Clijsters extensively expressed her gratitude, once again revealing her communal side – and poignantly, holding her father’s memory in her heart. “After my dad passed away as well it was the perfect release for me to deal where a lot of things and at the same time to think on court about life and about what happens, and once in a while just smack the ball as hard as you can to get a lot of the frustration out. But it's been good.”
The world agreed. For many, the joy of sports is the opportunity to pick sides, to align oneself passionately with one player or team over another. While it was one thing to cheer on a Clijsters opponent, it was virtually impossible to root against her. Her journey remains testimony to a powerful concept: tennis is just a game, to be enjoyed as part of a community.
-- Joel Drucker, International Tennis Hall of Fame Historian-at-Large