Kim Clijsters, the US Open and the Wimbledon Roof

Kim ClijstersThis post was written but never published about an event that took place in 2009. It involves a celebration of a new roof at Wimbledon. It has  relevance to what happened at this week’s US Open championships in New York

September 14, 2009

When Kim Clijsters won the US Open in 2009 her success is hailed as a remarkable example of happenchance which resulted in her returning from retirement. But was it?

The match stood above a seemingly endless sequence of technically correct but stereotyped women’s contests of recent times. Her young opponent Caroline Wozniacki showed enough tennis to suggest she will win major tournaments in the future, and with enough style to ensure a sparkling career.

A minority sport?

Tennis remains a minority sport in most countries. Maybe recently it has grown in wider popularity through Justin Henin and ‘the other Belgian’ player, Kim Clijsters. In Switzerland Roger Federer’s impact globally has attracted wider attention. Unfortunately all too often, the sport can be upstaged, even during Open Championships sports headlines from football, golf, or athletics, juiced up if those athletes have been on the naughty step for ingesting the wrong stots of chemicals.

Serena loses it

Even Kim’s victory this week was in danger of being upstaged by the bizarre end to her semi-final win over tournament favourite Serena Williams, who was reduced to a blind rage over line calls and was defaulted at match-point.

Here is the backstory to Kim’s revival:

Clijsters shows precocious talent as a junior, but another junior from her own country, Justin Henin was to overtake her and become world No 1 and a multi-slam winner. Both retire young to seek more stable family lives. Klijsters has a baby, daughter Jada, and appears to be settling for comfortable domesticity away from the sporting headlines.

Then she took part in a match to commemorate (bizarrely) a new roof. OK, a new roof on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, but the event still seems to capture something about the slight nuttiness of Tennis and its promotion. In the televised event Kim plays a set partnering Tim Henman, England’s almost man of tennis, and the sport’s most glamorous couple, and superstars, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff.

The exhibition game demonstrates the special skills of its very top performers. Immediately after the display, almost jokingly, Clijsters remarks that she might just give tournament tennis another go.

After a few warm-up tournaments, she gets a wild-card into the US Open. There is some press interest in her early rounds, to catch the dram of her inevitable demise. But there wasn’t an early-round demise. Her progress to the final included wins not just over Serena but over Venus, the other formidable Williams sister.

The story as it is being told (you might say as it is being weaved or spun) is that ‘if Kim hadn’t played at Wimbledon in the roof-opening exhibition, she would never had an opportunity to rediscover her appetite for the game, and would never had won that American Open championship.’ It is a plausible idea, and I can nearly believe it. It fits nicely into a widespread belief in fate or luck playing a part in our destinies.

‘If only I had done that …’

‘If I hadn’t caught that particular train…

‘If Kim hadn’t accepted the invite to celebrate the opening of the Wimbledon Roof’

Here’s another possibility

A year into being a mum with a much-loved daughter, Clijsters begins to miss something. She watches women players win events, and thinks maybe she could do better than that. She agrees to play in the event, and starts training hard because that’s what champions would do. She discovers, as with the Wimbledon experience, that she might still be able to get to the top again. Or she figures that a few million dollars might still make a worthwhile nest-egg. And where better than the US Open, scene of her only Open win, and arguably her best chance again? She puts together a great back-up team.

Even while pregnant, Kim remained a celebrity. Jada has become an important part of the story, and her arrival on court after her mother’s US Open triumph was a media dream

My point is this. There may be other more complicated explanations that go beyond the story that Kim’s victory would not have happened if she hadn’t played with Tim Henman and enjoyed it so much at that ‘Wimbledon at the roof-opening ceremony’ .

Postscript:

Kim played on for another three years with considerable success, although never matching the successes of her earlier career. Serena was to become unrivaled No 1player in the world and hailed as perhaps the greatest of all time. She ran her own campaign sometimes explosively against what she saw as racially-biased treatment against her. In the US Open in 2015 her attempt to achieve the Calendar Grand Slam was not successful.

In the US Open a nearly completed roof is being constructed for the Arthur Ashe stadium.

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