Kim, a lovable personality

It took the 2005 US Open win for her (seen with the trophy) to dismount the gorilla. After four Grand Slam final losses and innumberable semifinal and quarterfinal appearances, Clijsters was a Grand Slam champion.-AP It took the 2005 US Open win for her (seen with the trophy) to dismount the gorilla. After four Grand Slam final losses and innumberable semifinal and quarterfinal appearances, Clijsters was a Grand Slam champion.

Kim Clijsters will be remembered more as a good tennis player who had a fresh outlook towards being a tennis player. She will be remembered for resisting the allure of bigger bucks than what she already made, and for having the courage to stick to doing what she really wanted, writes Nandita Sridhar.

The sports fan admires the genius, yearns to be the pugilist who punches above his weight and connects with the sweaty-palmed performer. Kim Clijsters' fans would slot her in the third category. The former world No. 1 was liked, respected and sympathised with. She was called `nice' to the point of it becoming her on-court appendage, perceived as coming in the way of success. But despite 34 career singles titles (including a Grand Slam), 11 doubles titles and being a former world No. 1 in both singles and doubles, the Belgian was, unfairly, never thought of as a competitor.

Perhaps, playing alongside Justine Henin, Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova made her seem like the girl-next-door trying to pin down the big bullies. She spent most of her career running on a wave of sympathy after her four Grand Slam runner-up finishes.

Till 2005, she was seen as the quintessential big-match blunderer. Some admired her ability to shrug off big-stage losses with a smile, while a few others felt she took to losing a lot easier than others.

In modern sport, niceness is often viewed as an isolated quality that seldom co-exists with competitiveness, ruthlessness or mental toughness. Coming back from a yearlong rehabilitation after a wrist injury would have required mental toughness. Winning back-back Tier 1 tournaments (2005 Indian Wells and Miami) after slipping to world No. 133 would have demanded ruthlessness and a competitive spirit; but in a Grand Slam obsessed sport, Clijsters was still seen as a choker, an underachiever and "too nice to win a Slam (whatever that meant)."

It took the 2005 US Open win for her to dismount the gorilla. After four Grand Slam final losses and innumerable semifinal and quarterfinal appearances, Clijsters was a Grand Slam champion. Having been through wrist injuries, a publicised failed relationship (with Lleyton Hewitt) and painful final losses, the US Open win was a release of pent up pressure. It was the cathartic moment that she needed to decide her future in the game. Were success and money worth the pain? Do chronic injuries (she suffered another wrist injury in 2006) take the joy away from playing sport for the sake of it and enjoying it?

"It is tiring to get out of bed and to use an hour just to warm up stiff muscles in the morning," Clijsters said. "The constant injuries and continual rehabilitation ... it makes it all even more difficult to go on."

Her decision to retire early is surprising for a player so young, but not so much for Kim Clijsters, the individual. One of the reasons she was liked more than she was admired was that she was refreshingly different. Unlike her glum-faced prototypical counterparts, she smiled on the tennis court, though it raised questions on her competitive spirit.

AP

People liked her, because they connected with her human frailties on the Grand Slam stage. "The matches that I'll never forget were the 1999 US Open match with Serena, when I was 5-3 up in the third. I had such goose bumps it was incredible (Clijsters eventually lost the match). I remember playing Am�lie in Filderstadt one year, coming from match point down to win, but the tennis we both played that day was amazing," she said in the WTA site.

Players respond to occasions in different ways, but few admit to getting goose bumps. We might never know how she really felt after losing to Serena in the 2003 Australian Open semifinal after leading 5-1, but she was composed enough to ungrudgingly give her opponent credit. For her, there was an emotional investment in a sport, which went beyond winning and losing. There was joy in being part of an occasion, in being cheered by a crowd and in belonging to a Tour and a sport, and in being liked by her peers.

Once the joy disappeared after nine years in the circuit and was nagged by a series of injuries, the emotional involvement went missing, and dragging along for quantifiable factors like money and titles didn't seem enough. There were other `normal' things in life to experience, like marriage (to basketball player Brian Lynch) and motherhood. Nobody could grudge her choice, even if not many could approve it.

She could have ended it better than spending an obviously distracted 2007 on the tennis court. But retirements are usually patchy affairs, with no one really sure how to step down. She mercifully spared us the trouble of watching her half-heartedly walk through the year's remaining tournaments, making sure that's not how we would end up remembering her.

But how will we remember Kim Clijsters? There was little to cherish in her heavy groundstrokes that nearly caught the corner tape or the endless rallies that characterised her match. Clijsters will be remembered more as a good tennis player who had a fresh outlook towards being a tennis player. She will be remembered for resisting the allure of bigger bucks than what she already made, and for having the courage to stick to doing what she really wanted. She will be remembered for not having a tunnel vision, and for finding happiness outside the tennis court.

FACTBOX WTA singles titles: 34 WTA doubles titles: 11 Career prize money: $14,764,296 Career Win-Loss record (singles): 427-104 Career Win-Loss record (doubles): 129-50 Grand Slams: Singles: 1 (2005 US Open)

Doubles: 2 (2003 Roland Garros, Wimbledon, both partnering Ai Sugiyama)

Highlights:

She was the first Belgian, man or woman, to rank No.1 in the world.

In 2003, she became the first female athlete to pass $4-million in season earnings.

She received the Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship Award from her peers six out of seven years.

She was the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Player of the Year in 2005.