Five years ago in Newport, Rhode Island, Kim Clijsters saw her career in perspective for the first time.
“In the International Tennis Hall of Fame, I was able to go through the history of tennis and see all the athletes, the players that I grew up watching as a kid,” she said earlier this week. “The ones that made me fall in love with the sport.”
Seeing the exhibits with her childhood heroes left her speechless.
“That’s when that whole movie in your head starts playing – by me and my sister [Elke] playing on our driveway back in Belgium. We would go back and forth like Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. When it was the French Open, one of us was always Arantxa Sanchez. ”
Photos: A look back at the best milestones from Kim Clijsters’ career
Clijsters was downplayed that hot summer day of 2017 among the immortals in the game that first inspired her. On Friday, she announced that she is stepping out of the Hologic WTA Tour competition forever.
Her recent 20-month comeback, which fell almost identically to the spread of the global pandemic, never took flight. Gradually, Clijsters realized that her family was her first priority.
The 38-year-old, along with her husband Brian, are busy getting their three children to live in suburban New Jersey after a move from Belgium. She drives them to school and back, monitors homework, makes breakfast and dinner – and there is an endless supply of laundry.
“Yes, it’s been in my mind for a while,” Clijsters said. “I still love hitting the ball. With my schedule three, four days was enough to keep my rhythm under control, but certainly not good enough if I decided to play another tournament. Say, if I chose Australia, it’s three, four weeks.It’s just not possible at this point in our family life.
“Life takes over, doesn’t it?”
For the record, her last official match was on October 7, when she lost to Katerina Siniakova in the first round at Indian Wells. She subsequently played World Team Tennis and won more singles matches than she lost.
In hindsight, Clijsters said she was too stubborn to let tennis, at the highest level, go. Of course, stubbornness is really just another word for determination, the trait she attributes most to her success.
“I think my determination was something like a little girl that was a big factor,” Clijsters said. “This is something that came from my parents – they always pushed me to believe, ‘OK, what you do for your sport, you have to do it 100 percent.’ To this day, I think about what my father said: ‘You have to realize that at the end of your career you can not regret not giving it everything you had.’
“And out of everything, that’s probably what I’m most proud of – that I really did. From the moment I stepped onto the pitch, and whether it was training or combat, I was engaged. I was there to do my best. ”
A brief account of a well-played life in tennis: Four Grand Slam singles titles, two in doubles, a match record of 523-131 (80.0 percent), 41 titles, No. 1 ranking four different times over a period of eight years and $ 24 million plus in prize money.
Her playing style was a captivating combination of power and flexibility; her father, Lei, was a formidable football player, and her mother, Els, was a gymnast. You could see it in her signature divisions.
Clijsters was the first Grand Slam champion in his 20sth birthday, along with Ai Sugiyama to win the 2003 French Open double. They repeated themselves at Wimbledon, but Clijsters first won the singles title in 2005 at the US Open. In May 2007, at the age of 23, she retired for the first time.
“When I stopped playing, my dad was sick,” Clijsters said. “He was talking about maybe playing tennis again a few months before he passed away and I was like ‘Dad, no.’ It will not happen”. “
It was an invitation from the All England Club in 2009 that got the Clijsters to focus on tennis again. It was only a few months after she had given birth to her daughter Jada, and the timing worked right.
“That was when the hunger for competition came back, and yes, it just went from there,” Clijsters said. “Waited for a few weeks to see if the emotions would go on and it did. There are definitely moments in your life that mature you and have a big impact on your life. Losing my dad was one of them.”
After more than two years after the game, Clijsters won five out of seven matches in Cincinnati and Toronto before her unlikely and triumphant run at the 2009 US Open. She beat Serena and Venus Williams and Li Na on their way to the final, where she defeated Caroline Wozniacki. It was, Clijsters said, her most emotional victory.
She defended her title in 2010, won the Australian Open in 2011 and walked away from tennis in 2012 – again, thinking it was for the last time. But more than seven years later, after Jack and Blake joined the family, Clijsters wanted to give up tennis once again.
She played only five matches – COVID-19 wreaked havoc on world travel and sustained a knee injury – but as a testament to her prowess, she extended three of them to a third set.
“My passion for tennis will never leave, no matter what I do,” Clijsters said. “I feel a very great need to give back to tennis because I have gotten so much out of it. So yes, it will be the next phase, to see where I can go? ”
She has turned down several requests from current players to be a part-time coach and has instead chosen to focus on Jada’s budding basketball career. As a 14-year-old, she is already 5-foot-11, and her mother says that when she dribbles down the track at full speed, she has learned to step out of the way.
Clijsters still hit balls, usually at the nearby Atlantic Club in Manasquan. Last Friday, she played with the pro for a few hours in the morning, then came back for a jam ball.
“It’s very intense,” Clijsters said. “When you’ve been competing for, like me, since I was a little girl, I love getting that challenge, the pressure to prove something.”
There will be no shortage of tennis opportunities in the future. The experience of running Kim Clijsters Academy in Bree, Belgium – the city she grew up in – has shown her the benefits of sharing her knowledge of the game.
Clijsters recently visited the women’s tennis team at Monmouth University. She played doubles, played some single points and sat on the court for an hour answering questions. She wants to be a fixture at the Grand Slams, do TV work and play tennis legends – she’s excited about Wimbledon adding mixed doubles to their schedule.
Clijsters is determined to return to those who helped her along the way.
“I can not tell you the impact of Steffi and Monica and Arantxa when I came on tour,” she said. “That world became my reality. They were kind, they wanted to listen, they wanted to give advice.”
“No,” she said emphatically. “None. I’ve always made career decisions about how I felt at the time – not what was good for my career in the long run. I’m happy with how everything worked.”