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End of an Era
by Steve Flink

And so Kim Clijsters has cut her last season short, and this immensely admired woman has concluded her career, retiring at the age of 23. The sprightly Belgian finished her business with an opening round defeat at the J&S Cup in Warsaw, knowing in her heart that there was no point in playing the game for keeps any longer. Her announcement came as no shock to her most devoted followers, because the signs were increasingly evident that her will to win and compete at the

Kim Clijsters bids farewell at the J&S cup in Warsaw. 
highest levels was waning rapidly.
            Clijsters leaves behind a remarkable record. In her nine seasons on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, she collected no fewer than 34 career singles titles, became one of only five players to simultaneously reside at No. 1 in the world in both singles and doubles, and captured the 2005 United States Open title for her lone Grand Slam tournament singles triumph. To have reached the pinnacle of her sport and secure a major singles crown was no mean feat. To have finished five of the previous six years among the top five was a tribute to her consistently high standards and the depth of her commitment. To have twice secured the Sony Ericsson WTA Season-Ending Championships--- the fifth most prestigious event in the women's game-- was an unmistakable sign of her class and character.
            To be sure, Clijsters celebrated a sparkling career. She irrefutably established herself as a great player, establishing herself as a competitor who was not afraid to confront the best in her profession on any surface. And yet, despite her multitude of credits, without overlooking the scope of her successes, Clijsters may not deserve to make it as an inductee at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She will surely merit strong consideration, but this appealing sportswoman did not fare well in the most consequential matches of her career.
            Here was a woman who appeared in five championship matches at the majors, but she was triumphant only once. She performed with verve and alacrity under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium to take apart Mary Pierce in a straight set final at the 2005 Open. But all of her other final round appointments at the Grand Slam events ended in setbacks. On three of those occasions, countrywoman Justine Henin was too good for Clijsters. Henin dissected Clijsters emphatically at the 2003 French and U.S. Opens, then recorded a hard fought, three set victory when they collided again at the 2004 Australian Open.
            But the most significant loss for Clijsters was her first appearance in the final of a Grand Slam event. She confronted the tenacious Jennifer Capriati at Roland Garros in 2001. Capriati was enjoying the most productive stretch of her career. She had already taken that season's first Grand Slam event in Melbourne at the Australian Open. Capriati was playing the finest clay court tennis of her life as she approached her confrontation with Clijsters in Paris.
            Nevertheless, Clijsters was soaring at the start against an out of sorts Capriati. Clijsters took the first set with flawless ground stroke execution before Capriati gradually found the range to make it one set all. In a stirring final set, Clijsters did everything but win. Four times, she was two points away from garnering the title. In the end, however, Capriati was mentally tougher, narrowly escaping defeat, upending an unlucky Clijsters 1-6, 6-4, 12-10.
            In the final analysis, the loss of that crucial contest might deny Clijsters the chance to join the elite one day at the Hall of Fame. In retrospect, had she managed to stop Capriati in their gripping encounter at Roland Garros, Clijsters would have registered a first major much sooner and it might have altered the rest of her time on the tour. At the very least--- as I see it--- she would have come away with two Grand Slam singles titles, and her Hall of Fame status would have been an open and shut case.
            This is not to say that Clijsters does not have a reasonable chance to get into the shrine. After all, Jana Novotna and Gabriela Sabatini--- two women who were victorious only once in "Big Four" singles events-were both voted into the Hall. And Pam Shriver-another Hall of Fame inductee-- never did seal a major in singles. But Shriver won a women's doubles Grand Slam alongside Martina Navratilova in 1984 and secured 22 majors in doubles. Novotna had an outstanding record in doubles as well. And Sabatini was a front line player for many years, spending ten consecutive years among the top ten in the world.
            So maybe, just maybe, the enormously popular Belgian will get the nod from enough voters to receive the ultimate honor in her sport. Regrettably, I do not believe she should be enshrined. Be that as it may, there can be no debate that Kim Clijsters was an exemplary champion who will be sorely missed by the players, the press, and the public. She played the game fair and square, always brought out the best in her opponents, never failed to compete with grace and equanimity. The world of women's tennis will be a lesser place without her.   

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