Five years ago in Newport, Rhode Island, Kim Clijsters saw her career in perspective for the first time.
“At the International Tennis Hall of Fame I was able to walk 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 who made me fall in love with the sport.”
Seeing the exhibits featuring her childhood heroes left her speechless.
“That’s when that whole movie in your head starts to play – of me and my sister [Elke] playing on our driveway back in Belgium. We’d go back and forth as Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. When it was the French Open, one of us was always Arantxa Sanchez.”
Clijsters was enshrined that warm summer day in 2017 among the immortals of the game that first inspired her. On Friday she announced she’s stepping away from Hologic WTA Tour competition for good.
Her recent 20-month comeback, which coincided almost identically with the spread of the global pandemic, never took flight. Gradually, Clijsters came to realize that her family was her first priority.
The 38-year-old, along with husband Brian, is busy settling their three children into life in suburban New Jersey after a move from Belgium. She drives them to school and back, oversees homework, cooks breakfast and dinner – and there’s an endless supply of laundry.
“Yeah, it’s been on my mind for a while,” Clijsters said. “I still love to hit the ball. With my schedule three, four days was enough to keep my rhythm under control but definitely not good enough if I decided to play another tournament. Say, if I picked Australia, it’s three, four weeks. That’s just not possible at this stage in our family life.
“Life just sort of takes over, right?”
For the record, her last official match was Oct. 7, when she lost to Katerina Siniakova in the first round at Indian Wells. She subsequently played World Team Tennis, winning more singles games than she lost.
In retrospect, Clijsters said she was too stubborn to let tennis, at that highest level, go. Of course, stubbornness is really just another word for determination, the trait she credits most for her success.
“I think my determination was something as a little girl that was a huge factor,” Clijsters said. “This is something that came from my parents – they always pushed me in believing, ‘OK, what you do for your sport, you have to do it 100 percent.’ To this day, I think about what my dad said: `You have to realize at the end of your career you can’t regret not giving it everything you had.’
“And out of everything, that’s probably what I’m most proud of – that I really did that. From the moment I stepped on court and, whether it was practice or a match, I was committed. I was there to try my best.”
A brief accounting of a life in tennis well played: Four Grand Slam singles titles, two in doubles, a 523-131 match record (80.0 percent), 41 titles, the No.1 ranking four different times over a span of eight years and $24 million-plus in prize money.
Her playing style was an arresting combination of power and flexibility; her father, Lei, was a formidable soccer player and her mother, Els, was a gymnast. You could see it in her signature splits.
Clijsters was a first-time Grand Slam champion on her 20th birthday, pairing with Ai Sugiyama to win the 2003 French Open doubles. They repeated at Wimbledon, but Clijsters didn’t win the singles title until 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 talked about me maybe playing tennis again a few months before he passed, and I was like `Dad, no. That’s not going to happen.’ ”
It was an invitation from the All England Club in 2009 that moved Clijsters to focus on tennis again. It was only a few months after she had given birth to her daughter Jada and the timing seemed right.
“That’s when the hunger for competition came back and, yeah, it just went from there,” Clijsters said. “Waited for a few weeks to see if the emotion would stay, and it did. There’s 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 from the game, Clijsters won five 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 the way to the final, where she prevailed over Caroline Wozniacki. It was, Clijsters, said, her most emotional victory.
She defended her title in 2010, won the Australian Open in 2011and stepped away from tennis in 2012 – again thinking it was for the last time. But more than seven years later, after Jack and Blake had joined the family, Clijsters wanted to give tennis one more go.
She played only five matches – COVID-19 was wreaking havoc with world travel and she suffered a knee injury – but in a testament to her savvy, 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 big need to give back to tennis because I’ve gotten so much out of it. So, yeah, that will be the next phase, to see where can I go?”
She has declined several requests from current players to be a part-time coach, opting instead to focus on Jada’s burgeoning basketball career. At 14, she’s already 5-foot-11 and her mother says when she’s dribbling down the court at full speed, she’s learned to step out of the way.
Clijsters still hits 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 some pickle ball.
“It’s very intense,” Clijsters said. “Once you’ve been competing for, like me, from when I was a little girl, I love getting that challenge, the pushing to prove something.”
There will be no shortage of tennis options going forward. The experience of running the Kim Clijsters Academy in Bree, Belgium – the town she grew up in – has showed her the rewards of sharing her knowledge of the game.
Recently, Clijsters visited with the women’s tennis team at Monmouth University. She played doubles, played some singles points and sat on the court for an hour answering questions. She’ll be a fixture at the Grand Slams, doing television work and playing legends tennis – she’s excited that Wimbledon is adding mixed doubles to their schedule.
Clijsters is determined to return the favor of those who helped her along the way.
“I cannot 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 would listen, they would give advice.”
“No,” she said emphatically. “None. I’ve always made career decisions on how I felt at the time – not what was good for my career in the long run. I’m happy how everything worked out.”