The Meaning of Kim Clijsters

The picture of Kim Clijsters’ pro tennis career is a diptych, a portrait in two parts; because of that, she leaves a singular legacy.
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Kim Clijsters with her daughter, Jada Elle, following one of her U.S. Open victories after returning to the sport

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

What does the success of Kim Clijsters mean for women—in tennis, in sports, and in culture at large?

It’s a question that I’ve held off asking for years. Every time a reporter in her press conference asked her how she managed to be a mom and win tennis matches, I cringed. Every time an announcer joked that she was hurrying through a match to go pick up her daughter Jada from daycare, I looked for the mute button. I rolled my eyes when the rest of the world (including Kim) laughed at a reporter asking by text message if she was pregnant again because “her boobs were bigger and she was moody.”

After all, Kim Clijsters is a lot more than just a mom. She’s a four-time Grand Slam Champion. She’s a former No. 1-ranked tennis player. She’s a shot-maker, a world-class defender, and a damn nice person. She’s the queen of comebacks, one of the friendliest and most universally liked personalities her sport has ever known, and someone whom, now that she has officially retired for the second and final time, will be sorely missed on the WTA tour. Her impact on tennis and on the parameters of being female in professional sports is felt all the more in her absence. Which is to say, of course, that her absence will only be felt as a lasting presence. This is the very meaning of a legacy, and Clijsters’ legacy is a singular one that requires, and deserves, more reflection than the typical chorus of Title IX praise.

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The complete picture of Kim Clijsters’ legacy is a diptych, a tale of two careers. In her first career, she was painted as the portrait of an underachiever, becoming the WTA’s first Slamless No. 1 in 2003 and thereby setting a precedent for the media doubt and derision of such wonderful players as Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, and Caroline Wozniacki. According to the apparent consensus on these women, they were unfulfilled potential; even when they won, it was by default, by circumstances, by being pushers, and so on ad infinitum.

Kim was able to handle this “burden” better than the rest. Throughout all the trials—the failure to win the “big ones,” the brutal head-to-head competition with countrywoman (and polar-opposite) Justine Henin, the injuries, the public relationships and the incessant criticism that comes with being a top athlete—she stayed true to herself, unflappably conducting her career to the rhythm of her own game.

She had a steadfastness of self-confidence that many people—especially females and athletes—lack. She wanted to win, but she didn’t love herself any less if she lost. She wanted to be liked, but her niceness came from a rare groundedness, not desperation.

This confidence freed her up to do things her own way, in her own time, and to not waver when things didn’t go as planned. It led her to capture her first US Open in 2005, after losing her first four Grand Slam finals. And it led her to choose retirement, to everyone’s surprise, at the very young age of twenty-three. She didn’t know if her body could keep going, and she didn’t feel like she had the passion for the game any more. So she didn’t force it like others might. She walked away with her head held high and a smile on her face. She got married. She had a baby. And then, to everyone’s surprise, she came back.

Whether she was winning Grand Slams or falling apart in the finals, Kim was Kim—fiercely competitive on the court, and eminently gracious off court. She was talented enough to push the top players, but occasionally nerves would overcome her on the biggest stages. In her first career this was portrayed as flakiness, even insincerity. In her second career, with a baby in tow, these attitudes made her “Saint Kim.” Yet Kim always undeniably knew who she was and what she wanted. And it was precisely this insistence on being true to herself that forced the public to adjust its image of her, producing a dramatically different portrait of Clijsters in her second career.

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She started training again to play an exhibition match at the opening of the Wimbledon roof in the spring of 2009, two years after retiring the first time. Her body was holding up better than she’d expected and her once diminished passion was back in full. Though she’d had a baby, she was a modern woman with the resources to do what so many men do every day—become both a parent and the athlete she wanted to be.

The complete picture of Kim Clijsters, the one that contains both careers and transcends the interval between them, is a portrait of greatness, for which there was no previously existing template. It’s still difficult to fathom all she was able to accomplish in her second career, especially in 2009. In just her third tournament back she won the US Open. Yes, it bears repeating: After two whole years off of tour, and giving birth, she won a Grand Slam in just her third tournament back. And she made it look so easy that many were quick to marginalize it, reducing it to a fluke of timing: media and tennis fans alike insisted she was just taking advantage of a weak era in the WTA. The story wasn’t how great she was, but how inferior her competition was. This has become the media’s default portrayal of WTA players. But anyone paying attention—and soon enough, everyone was paying attention—would realize just how false that perception of Clijsters was.

In route to her 2009 victory in the US Open over Wozniacki, she beat Li Na, Venus Williams (who was ranked No. 3 at the time) and Serena Williams. You can’t talk about Kim without talking about the Williams sisters, Serena in particular. Kim is the only player who has been an on-and-off-again presence throughout their careers. Kim was Serena’s opponent in the last match a Williams sister played in Indian Wells in 2001. And more recently, in successive years, Kim took out the Williams sisters in drama-filled matches in the semifinals at the US Open. Kim handled both situations with grace, as she always did. The Williams sisters are, of course, legends in every sense of the word. But so is Kim.

The match against Serena Williams is the one that everyone remembers: there was a foot fault; there were Serena’s challenges, muttered and shouted; and there was, in the end, a point penalty against Serena on Kim’s match point. It’s the match that overshadowed everything else that happened at the US Open that year. And, unfortunately, it nearly overshadowed the enormity of what Clijsters had accomplished in her return to tennis. But the plain fact is that Kim was leading when Serena was deducted the now-infamous point. Serena was frustrated, not just because of the line call, but because Kim Clijsters was beating her.

Above and beyond their shared legendary status, Kim Clijsters and Venus and Serena Williams share one more quality: all three women have flown in the face of that central value of tennis—tradition—by quietly insisting on doing things their own way. The media likes to throw female athletes into categories—you’re either a model or you’re butch, a diva or a bitch, a pushover or a headcase. But Kim Clijsters paved her own paths and made her own mark. And yes, mid-career, she made the unorthodox decision to become a mom. Not the only mom on the WTA tour, but by far the most successful.

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The WTA is the largest and most powerful sporting organization for women, and to have a new mother to be defeating living legends and winning Grand Slam titles was a big deal. The fact that Clijsters had a daughter didn’t define her accomplishments on the court, nor did it necessarily enhance them, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the implications it had.

One way to look at the portrait of a lady—a lady-athlete, lady-anything—is biologically, as child-bearing. It’s an image of what it means to be female that is held widely, tightly and above all else, by many. It’s why we have hips and breasts, two physical features that can limit women athletically. In tennis, for example, the breasts usually affect the force of a serve, making it less powerful of a weapon than it is for the men. This is a generality, of course, but it is by and large the case, and it means that, in the women’s game, players break service more frequently per match. This is often the basis for the standard criticism of the women’s game and its traditional relegation to second-sex status within the sport.

It’s this tradition that makes it difficult to picture the pro athlete as mother, or the mother as pro athlete. Obviously, the female body changes during pregnancy, and it is impossible for women to maintain their peak athletic fitness after the early stages of pregnancy (and several months afterwards). But it’s more to that, too. There’s an underlying and subtle sense—often not so underlying and not so subtle—that a women can’t put the hours in on the court and off the court that it takes to be a top professional athlete and still be a good mother. Or that if she was still a good mother, that she wouldn’t be able to also excel at her sport. You could do one or the other, but not both. Female athletes can’t have it all.

But Kim did do both, and with equal commitment to achieving what she wanted, despite the popular reasons against choosing both rather than choosing between the two. Throughout her second career she was, when her body held up, a better tennis player than she ever had been. She still skidded around the court, blasting shots back and creating head-scratching angles. She was more patient and mature during the tough moments, and she won three times the amount of Grand Slams as she did during her first career. She played and won enough to briefly capture the No. 1 ranking again. She was undefeated in her comeback against Venus, Serena, and Justine Henin (thanks to Henin’s bizarre and quick comeback of her own). She went from being 1-4 in Grand Slam Finals to 3-0 in take 2. Far from her detracting from her athletic career, it was as if being a mother made her a better tennis player.

Yet even for feminists, there’s something uneasy in this, too. There exists a notion that a woman can’t reach her full potential—biological or ontological—until she’s had a child, and that is a notion of which it is right to be wary. But whether it was what she learned from motherhood, or merely the fact that she benefitted from being older and wiser and under less pressure and lower expectations, there’s no doubt that by simply refusing to be limited by the conventions of her sport, Kim Clijsters achieved greatness. She made us to redraw the portrait of a female athlete in her singular image.

And, at the end of the day, when she was ready to leave tennis for good, she left it better than she found it.

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Few women find themselves in the same situation as Kim Clijsters. Not all female athletes can take enough time away from their sport to be mothers. Not all females can be professional athletes. Not all females or athletes want to be parents at all, and those that do often don’t have the economic luxury of choosing between work and home life. This isn’t about Clijsters showing us the way things should be, but rather Clijsters showing us the way things can be.

And it’s not about being the perfect woman or athlete. It’s not about fitting perfectly into a box or tradition that others have defined. The strength in what Kim Clijsters did was to show women, once again, that these days our possibilities are always greater than whatever has been imagined or realized before. That things that once seemed mutually exclusive don’t have to be so. That women can “have it all” because they define and redefine what “it all” is.


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