By Randy Walker
Kim Clijsters is someone who comes into my mind when I think of retirement ceremonies at the US Open.
And it has nothing to with her career-ending singles match Wednesday at the US Open.
This memory dates back to another retirement ceremony held at the USTA National Tennis Center. On the opening night of the 2003 US Open, Arthur Ashe Stadium was the stage for Pete Sampras to announce his retirement from the sport – 12 months after his farewell signature on the game in winning the 2002 US Open final against Andre Agassi. While working for the USTA at the time, I was assigned to be with Pete and his coach Paul Annacone throughout the late afternoon and evening, moderating his retirement press conference and escorting him to various interviews and duties through his on-court speech and ceremony. While waiting in the referee’s office for the ceremonies to begin, who happened to come into the office to check on a practice court or match schedule but Clijsters.
What made a lasting impression on me in those moments was how Kim, then age 20, became completely engaged in Pete’s infant son Christian, who Pete famously paraded around the court following his on-court retirement speech. Clijsters got on her knees and began baby-talking with the young Sampras child. She played with him, cuddled him and just adored this infant for an extended time. It was quite endearing and a strong reflection on what really matters and is important in life to this tennis champion – children and family.
I repeated this memory from 2003 Wednesday to a veteran tennis journalist in the US Open media room, shortly after Kim’s second-round 7-6, 7-6 loss to Britain’s Laura Robson in the farewell singles match in her Hall of Fame career.
“She loves children,” said the writer. “I would always see her at the nurseries with the kids at practically every tournament. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets pregnant again in two months!”
It’s obvious that being a good mother, a good wife and having a good family life are of the greatest importance to Kim. It plays into why Clijsters has enjoyed almost unparalleled popularity and respect among fans, media and her peers. She married basketball player Brian Lynch in July of 2007 and together they had a girl, Jada, born in February of 2008.
She first retired from tennis back in May of 2007, citing injuries and the grind of the tour, in addition to her desire to start a family. Two years later, when she was asked to compete in the special exhibition to test the indoor conditions under the new Centre Court roof at Wimbledon, Clijsters caught the competitive tennis bug again and decided to return to pro tennis. She engaged herself in a full-fledged comeback that resulted in her capturing her second major singles title at the 2009 US Open, just weeks after her return. She became the first mother to win a major singles title since Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon in 1980 and earned the respect of sports fans around the world, particularly working mothers who juggle a career with the task of properly raising children. The scenes of Kim posing for photos holding the US Open trophy, while playing with daughter Jada on court, were endearing images that turned her into a global sports sweetheart.
Clijsters has shown that she lives by the Jackie Kennedy creed, best summed up when the former First Lady said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” While Kim Clijsters has three US Open singles trophies and one Australian Open trophy somewhere in her household, it’s clear that daughter Jada, husband Brian and any future children to come, are the shiniest trophies in her collection.