- 11 Aug 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, the 11th of August 2003, Kim Clijsters reached world No 1 for the first time in her career, a day after winning the title at the Los Angeles Open. At the time, she was the first player to sit on top of the WTA rankings without having ever claimed a Grand Slam title, despite having finished runner-up that year at Roland-Garros and having reached the semi-finals at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. The Belgian was also world No 1 in doubles, and she became the first female player to hold the first rank in both singles and doubles simultaneously.
Kim Clijsters, born in 1983, had been one of the best players in the world since she reached the French Open final in 2001, where she was defeated by Jennifer Capriati in a breathtaking two and a half-hour battle. Her game style was mainly aggressive, with the ability to dictate from the first strike, but she was also known for her exceptional movement and her trademark splits; she was known for sliding even on hard courts, and retrieving every ball.
Clijsters started competing on the main tour at the age of 16, beating her first top 10 player (Amanda Coetzer) at Wimbledon in 1999, a few months before claiming her first title at the Luxembourg Open, where she defeated Dominique Monami in the final. She finished the season at 47 in the WTA rankings.
Her breakthrough year at the top level happened in 2001, when she eliminated world No 1 Martina Hingis in the semi-final of Indian Wells (6-2 2-6 6-1), before losing to Serena Williams in the final (4-6 6-4 6-2). A few months later, at Roland-Garros, she edged her rival Justine Henin in an all-Belgian semi-final (2-6 7-5 6-3), before losing an epic final (one of the finest in the tournament’s history) against Jennifer Capriati (1-6 6-4 12-10). These results propelled her into the top 10.
Clijsters won her first prestigious title in 2002, at the WTA Finals, held in Los Angeles, edging Serena Williams in the final (7/5 6/3), and finished the season as world No 4.
After her triumph at the WTA Finals, Clijsters started 2003 by claiming the title in Sydney, edging Lindsay Davenport in the final (6-4 6-3), and she arrived in Melbourne for the Australian Open as one of the favourites. She was stopped in the semi-final by Serena Williams (4-6 6-3 7-5), who remained undefeated in a Grand Slam tournament since the 2001 US Open. In the following months, the Belgian clinched four titles, including two Tier I (Indian Wells and Rome), but she did not manage to confirm her hold on the tour in Grand Slam tournaments. She was outclassed in the Roland-Garros final by Justine Henin (6-0 6-4), and eliminated by Venus Williams in the semi-final at Wimbledon (4-6 6-3 6-1).
With all these great results, Clijsters climbed to world No 2 in singles, behind Serena Williams. She did even better in doubles. While she had failed to lift a Grand Slam trophy in singles, in doubles she triumphed at both Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, partnering Ai Sugiyama, from Japan, and, on the 4th of August 2003, she became world No 1.
After Wimbledon, Clijsters rode the wave of her momentum, lifting the trophy in San Jose (defeating Capriati in the final, 4-6 6-4 6-2), and reaching the final in San Diego (lost to Justine Henin, 3-6 6-2 6-3). Meanwhile, Serena Williams, who held the world No 1 spot since July 2002, suffered from a knee injury and was kept away from the tour (in fact, she would not attend a tournament until March 2004).
This was how Kim Clijsters, when she arrived in Los Angeles, knew that claiming the title there would make her world No 1; it was exciting but also put extra pressure on her shoulders. “I can’t really describe that feeling,” she said. “I was really nervous.” Yet, the Belgian had a peaceful ride to the final, only dropping one set to Sharapova in the round of 16 (6-4 1-6 6-1), and beating Francesca Schiavone in the semi-final to set a clash against former No 1 Lindsay Davenport, then still ranked No 4 in the world.
After an impressive start, Clijsters took the first set, 6-1, but in the second set, nerves made her level drop, and Davenport took the opportunity to win the set, 6-3. The Belgian then found confidence in the fact that she had edged Davenport three times already in 2003, without losing a single set: the first time in the Sydney final (6-4 6-3), the second time in the final at Indian Wells (6-4 7-5), and the third time in the semi-final in San Diego, just a week before the L.A final (6-3 6-3). Clijsters gathered herself together and, playing more aggressively to prevent the American from dictating the tone of the points, she sealed her victory, 6-1 in the third set.
The next day, when she woke up, Kim Clijsters had lost the No 1 rank in doubles, but she had become the new world No 1 in singles, the first female player to ever reach that spot without having won at least one Grand Slam title. Her next challenge would be to fill that gap in her list of achievements.
What happened next
A week later, Clijsters would reclaim the No 1 spot in doubles, and she would become the only player in WTA history to be on top of both rankings simultaneously.
She would remain No 1 for 10 consecutive weeks, and 12 weeks in total until the end of 2003, topped by fellow Belgian Justine Henin, who would end the season on top of the charts. Her Belgian rival would defeat her twice again in major finals, at the 2003 US Open and at the 2004 Australian Open. Clijsters would only recover the world No 1 spot in January 2006, a few months after having eventually claimed her first Grand Slam title at the 2005 US Open, where she would edge Mary Pierce in the final (6-3 6-1).
After a first retirement in 2007, Kim Clijsters would make a spectacular comeback in 2009 and claim three more major crowns, two at the US Open (2009, 2010) and one at the 2011 Australian Open. That year, she would also reclaim the world No 1 spot from Caroline Wozniacki, for only one week. Her body would then start giving out again, and she would suffer shoulder, ankle and abdominal injuries. Her appearances would become rare and she would retire a second time after Wimbledon 2012.
In 2020, Kim Clijsters was in the process of a second come-back, which she had begun in Dubai (defeated by Muguruza, 6/2 7/6) and Monterrey (lost to Konta, 6-3 7-5), but was interrupted by the coronavirus crisis.
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