On September 14, 2009, Belgian women's tennis player Kim Clijsters extended her U.S. Open winning streak to 14 consecutive matches—and won the second straight U.S. Open tournament she's played in. This would be a classic example of a player dominating her competition, except for an odd twist—Kim Clijsters' back-to-back titles come four years apart.
In late 2005 and through much of 2006, 22-year-old Clijsters was at the top of her game. She won the 2005 U.S. Open, advanced to the semifinals at the 2006 Australian open and regained her position as the world's top-rated women's tennis player (she had earned the number one ranking in 2003). But in the summer of 2006, her fortune turned.
At a tournament in Montreal, Clijsters slipped and injured her wrist, forcing her to take a couple of months off and miss her chance to defend her U.S. Open title. Although she came back later that year, Clijsters was not up to her previous level. She posted a note on her personal website in May 2007 announcing her immediate retirement. Though she was then not yet 24, injuries left her unable to continue competing. Clijsters' career arc seemed all too common in women's tennis—a bright star with amazing early success whose career abruptly ends because of bad luck and injuries. The sports world was left to wonder: What if?
During her 27-month retirement, Clijsters' personal life was full of drama, both good and bad. In 2007, she married Brian Lynch, an American basketball player who plays in Belgium. In 2008, she gave birth to their daughter, Jada. In 2009, her father, a professional soccer player, died of lung cancer.
In March 2009, Clijsters announced she would dip a toe in the water, testing her enthusiasm for a full-scale comeback with wild card entries into three tournaments: warm-up tournaments in Cincinnati and Toronto and a return to the scene of her greatest success, the U.S. Open at the National Tennis Center New York City. As a wild card, Clijsters was able to enter these tournaments despite not having a high ranking—which she lost by retiring—and not having to play her way in as a qualifier.
"What if?" would finally be answered.
No one gave much thought to Clijsters' chance of advancing deep into the tournament—she was considered little more than a personal interest story in a field crowded with them. First of all, she began the tournament unseeded—there had not been an unseeded U.S. Open women's champion since Venus Williams did it in 1997.
Second is the way she entered the tournament—no wild card entry had even ever reached the U.S. Open final before…much less won it all.
Third, Clijsters is a mother—no mom had won a major tennis title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon in 1980. While her fellow players spent their off days on the practice courts preparing for their next opponent or working through some mechanical flaw spotted by their coach, Clijsters reportedly spent hers very differently. She, Brian and Jada spent the days relaxing together, a world away from the crowds.
And yet there was Clijsters, on a Sunday night in September, handily beating her younger opponent—19-year-old Carolina Wozniacki—for a straight-sets championship and earning a new world ranking of 19. (This came after another rare accomplishment: beating both Venus and Serena Williams in the same tournament. Only six women have done it before, and Clijsters is the only woman to do it twice.) There was Clijsters, like a time capsule, defending her championship four years late. And there was 19-month-old Jada, admiring the latest shiny addition to mom's trophy case.
Are you inspired by Clijsters' comeback? Are there any other professional moms you admire? Leave your opinion below in our comments section.