Introducing our new ‘Past and Present’ series, where we take a look at some of the greats of our game – from the present day and the past. What more fitting player could there be to start the ball rolling than legend Kim Clijsters, who retired this week for a second time at the age of 29.
Clijsters was always going to be a special player. In 1998, just months after turning pro, she won two singles titles and three doubles tittles on the ITF circuit. This success was quickly followed the next year when, at 16, she broke into the world’s top 50 after winning Luxembourg: her first WTA title.
1999 also saw Clijsters make her name on the Grand Slam circuit. She lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon to tennis legend Steffi Graf and in the third round of the US Open to future adversary Serena Williams.
Yet it was in 2001 that Clijsters’ career really kicked on. She finished the year fifth in the rankings, won her fourth to sixth singles title and reached her first major final – Roland Garros – where she fell to the impervious Jenifer Cipriati.
A year later she won her 10th WTA title yet still couldn’t pin down a major. That would come in 2005, however, where the Belgian finally lived up to her potential and took the US Open 6-3 6-1 over Mary Pierce.
From then on her life changed, yet her tennis failed to improve as she again found major victories hard to come by. By the end of 2006 she had won her 33rd WTA title, in Warsaw, yet fell in the semi-finals at Melbourne, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the WTA Championships. Things just weren’t going quite right for the Belgian.
Despite her consistent yet not emphatic trophy haul, Clijsters still shocked the tennis world when she decided to retire to start a family. Naturally she got the support of the tennis world and fans were happy, if not disappointed she was leaving, that Clijsters had gone out on her own terms.
Yet one pregnancy later and the right-hander just couldn’t stay away. She announced her comeback to tennis in 2009 – more determined than ever. It was clear there was business still left to complete on the court and Clijsters headed into her first major tournament since retirement as a wildcard in the US Open.
Round after round she faced tough opponents yet breezed past them as though she’d been playing all season. Against world number three Venus Williams, she needed three sets to progress to the quarters 6-0 0-6 6-4 in one of the most unpredictable matches in the modern age.
She scalped Serena Williams in the semi final after two close sets and suddenly found herself in a position almost alien to her: a Grand Slam final. Yet Clijsters showed little fear and dispatched a young Caroline Wozniacki with consummate ease, taking the match 7-5 6-3 to become the first ever wildcard to win the US Open.
Out of nowhere she was back at the pinnacle of the women’s game and her popularity grew still further when she successfully defended her New York title just 12 months later. That period of her career is hailed as one of the greatest by any Belgian player and Clijsters went on to win the 2010 WTA Championships before the Australian Open in January the next year.
Now 29, Clijsters has made her point and is determined to retire. She played her final exhibition match in Belgium this week, defeating old adversary Venus Williams 6-3 6-3 in front of 13,000 people on the Antwerp court. On the WTA tour, she boasts a 7-6 record over Williams, of which very few others can claim the same, and throughout her career dazzled fans with her spectacular shot selection and personable approach to the game.
Singles tour titles: 41
Doubles tour titles: 11
Australia – W 2011
France – F 2001 & 2003
Wimbledon – SF 2003 & 2006
US – W 2005, 2009 & 2010