May 6 2007: The day Kim Clijsters retired, at 23
- 06 May 2020
What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history
On the 6th of May, 2007, aged only 23, Kim Clijsters announced her retirement a few days after her loss against Julia Vakulenko (7-6, 6-3) in the first round in Warsaw. The Belgian had already said that it was going to be her last year on the WTA Tour but she was supposed to play the entire season up until the Stuttgart Open in October, and her brutal announcement astonished the tennis world.
The player involved
Kim Clijsters, born in 1983, had been one of the best players in the world ever since she reached the French Open final in 2001, where she was defeated by Jennifer Capriati after a breathtaking two-and-a-half hour match (1-6, 6-4, 12-10). She won her first big title in 2002, at the WTA Finals, held in Los Angeles, edging Serena Williams in the final (7-5 6-3).
In 2003, she became the first Belgian to be ranked world No 1. That year, she competed in 21 singles events, reaching the semi-finals in all but one of them, advancing to 15 finals, and winning nine titles with a record of 90–12. The only thing she didn’t manage to achieve was to win her first Grand Slam title: she made the semi-finals at the Australian Open and at Wimbledon and she was runner-up at both Roland-Garros and the US Open, defeated each time by fellow Belgian Justine Henin.
She had missed almost the entire 2004 season due to a wrist injury. Back in the game in 2005, after a great summer, she eventually won her first Grand Slam Title at the US Open, defeating Mary Pierce in the final, (6-3 6-1) . As the winner of the US Open Series, Clijsters doubled her prize money, receiving a $2.2 million prize (at the time, the largest in women’s sports history).
Her style was aggressive, with the ability to dictate the game from the first shot but she was also known for her exceptional movement and her trademark splits, sliding even on hard court, retrieving every ball.
She was also a great doubles player, winning two Grand Slam tournaments, partnering Ai Sugiyama. Together they won Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2003, thus giving Clijsters the rare achievement of being simultaneously ranked world No 1 in singles and doubles.
Clijsters’ career was strongly impacted by her rivalry with Henin. The two players originated from different parts of the same country, speaking different languages; Kim grew up in the Flemish region while Justine was from French-speaking Wallonia. Although they were friends in their teenage years, their paths split during their early years on the Tour. They had already faced each other 23 times, with Henin leading 12-11, while Henin also usually prevailed on the most important occasions, particularly in Grand Slam finals where she won all three of their meetings.
Clijsters had battled injuries for several years despite her young age. In 2004, aged 21, she missed almost the entire season due to a wrist injury that would require surgery in July. In 2006, she was only able to play 14 tournaments, bothered by various physical issues. She withdrew from her first tournament of the year with hip and back problems; in the semi-finals at the Australian Open, she had to retire after twisting her ankle, then she withdrew from Indian Wells because of the same injury. Her summer season was interrupted after she fell on her left wrist at the Canadian Open, an injury which kept her out until late October.
She had already declared, as early as July 2005, that she was seriously considering retiring at the end of 2007. “I think I will stop at the end of 2007,” she said. “My body is already giving me a lot of problems. I like to win and I put in a lot to do that, but the quality of life in and outside tennis are at least as important. I can’t see myself playing for more than two or three years.”
Clijsters had planned a light schedule for this last year on Tour, which was still supposed to take her as far as Stuttgart, in October. But in March, she had already dropped out of the French Open, and was not sure about attending the US Open anymore.
Clijsters had played only five tournaments so far in 2007. She had claimed the title in Sydney, before reaching the semi-final at the Australian Open and the final in Antwerp before a new hip injury shortened her schedule.
A few days after losing to Vakulenko in the first round of the Warsaw, she decide to hasten her retirement and she quit without further delay, publishing a message on the online diary she was keeping at the time.
“The recurring injuries, having difficulty in getting out of bed in the morning, needing about an hour to get all the muscles warmed up, the demanding preparations of the marriage with Brian. It all makes things a bit difficult to keep on going. (…) It has been more than fun, but the rackets are being hung up. I would have been able to continue for a few months and to take part in the four most lucrative tournaments (three Grand Slams and the Masters). Money is important, but not the most important thing in my life”.
A few months after Clijsters retired, she married basketball player Brian Lynch and gave birth to a daughter in early 2008.
In 2009, after participating in an exhibition match to test the new retractable roof at Wimbledon, she decided to come out of retirement and to start what she would call “a second career”.
She played her first tournaments in the summer, receiving wild-cards for major events, as she had no ranking anymore. At the US Open in 2009, the first Grand Slam of her second career, she became the first unseeded player to claim the title, beating both the Williams sisters on her way, and Caroline Wozniacki in the final (7-5 6-3). She also became the third mother in tennis history to win a Grand Slam tournament, after Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong.
Her new career saw her competing in fewer tournaments in order to maintain a family life, but she was extremely successful. She would claim two more Grand Slam crowns, a third one at the US Open in 2010 and a fourth and last victory at the Australian Open in 2011, making her the first player to claim more Grand Slam titles after becoming a mother than before. That year, she would also reclaim the world No 1 spot from Wozniacki, albeit for only one week. Her body would then start giving up again, and she would suffer from her shoulder, ankle and abdominal muscles. Her appearances would become rare and she retired for a second time after Wimbledon 2012.
In 2020, Kim Clijsters was in the process of a second comeback, which she had begun in Dubai, where she was defeated by Garbine Muguruza, 6-2 7-6) and her comeback was put on hold by the coronavirus crisis.