These days many say that Novaak Djokovic is the male GOAT. It’s accepted that Serena is the WTA MVP. But not that many realize that Kim Clijsters is the MCP – Most Caring Player. It’s said that, “Good guys finish last.” And Naomi Osaka made it painfully clear that women’s pro tennis is a fiercely competitive beast that can gut the joy out of even the happiest of kids.
But there’s another, far more benign side to the game. Tennis has been blessed with a long tradition of endearing women who’ve excelled, and are beloved in the locker room and beyond. The enchanting Evonne Goolagong, playful Chris Evert, Lindsay Davenport, Serb Ana Ivanovic, pioneer Li Na, Coco Gauff and Ash “G’day mate!” Barty, all come to mind.
Still, it’s said that Kim Clijsters is the queen of nice – “Little Miss Popularity” who said that the reason she played tennis was to make friends. She once gave away 11,000 bottles of champagne to her fans in Antwerp. At a charity auction she bought a Labrador pup for $11,000 and promptly gave it away.
Like many tennis greats, her parents were gifted athletes – her late father was a soccer star. But she did things her way. She herself chose to play the game. When it was suggested she go off to the Bollettieri Academy in Florida, she replied, “No way!” Never mind that she was from a small country with lousy weather.
The Flemish Belgian, 38, is now a basketball coach’s wife and a New Jersey mother of three children – who’s on her third comeback. How wonderful.
She became No. 1 and then retired and had a daughter. Then she came back, won three majors, again became No. 1 and again retired. She has four Slam trophies on her mantle and is considered to be within the top 15 singles players of all time. Now she’s on her third comeback.
But things weren’t always perfect for Kim. In 2001, she was on the opposite side of the net in the Indian Wells final when Serena was booed for over two hours. She became involved in a kind of beauty and the beast relationship with the fiery Lleyton Hewitt, and after he made a racist comment at the US Open she defended him. She had an icy relationship with her fellow Belgian star Justine Henin, whose coach Carlos Rodriguez once said, “They are coworkers, but it stops there.”
Kim suffered a slew of injuries – hip, ankle and abdomen. And once, as she was recovering from a wrist injury, Mark Woodforde joked that it was due to the Belgian “carrying her [huge engagement] ring around.” On court, despite emerging as a fine teen, she struggled with nerves and lost the first four Grand Slam finals she played.
Seven years into her career she finally prevailed at the 2005 US Open. Known for her screeching [eat your heart our Novak Djokovic] splits on court, she would split with her fiancé Hewitt and eventually connect with a New Jersey-born basketball player, Brian Lynch.
When she announced her first retirement in 2007, fans were stunned that they’d be losing the beloved Belgian and Jersey girl. Her departure inspired one of the greatest courtside signs of all time. Australian fans held up a placard protesting her desire for domesticity. It read, “Our dishes are dirty too.” One over-the-top critic suggested that those who wanted more details on Kim’s retirement go to an imaginary website: “I’mgettingmarriedandhatetennisandI’mdyingtohavekidsandIlovepuppies.com.”
After Kim had her first child, mother-to-be Serena Williams joked, “If that means I have to pop one out and keep going, I guess I will.” In 2009, after two and a half years off the circuit, Clijsters got a wildcard into the US Open and became the first mother to win a Slam since Evonne Goolagong in 1980.
Then came perhaps the most endearing photo in tennis history, featuring Kim’s delightful 18-month-old daughter Jada trying to take in all the razzmatazz of a US Open awards ceremony. Clijsters would again witness another controversy with Serena, would claim another US Open title and again retire. But, deep into her retirement, she played an exhibition with the older Venus Williams and realized she still had game and the itch for competition. Her daughter Jada, then a 13-year-old basketball player, encouraged her to go back on the tour, in an era when WTA elders were excelling. Kim played World TeamTennis and, when she was injured, promptly volunteered to be a ball person. COVID stalled her comeback, yet despite her ranking of 1476 she got a wildcard into Indian Wells.
But today in the first set of her opening match against No. 53, 25-year-old Katerina Siniakova, the three-time Grand Slam doubles champ punished the rusty Clijsters, who displayed plenty of power but little of the fleet magic we once knew. The years had diminished her once dazzling quickness.
Kim promptly lost the first set, but roared back, in her first BNP Paribas in ten years. In the second set, the 2003 and 2005 Indian Wells champ played with more freedom and accuracy. Her return improved and she took advantage of the fragile Czech’s errant serve. But Siniakova rallied in the third set. Kim seemed to tire as she fell behind 3-1. She flubbed a key forehand, couldn’t break through, and fell 6-1, 2-6, 6-2. “Oh well,” said a voice in the press room. “In her career that girl has won over $25 million.”
But she’s won far more hearts. Tennis’ most caring star also had great insight into the game. When she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017, she said tennis had taught her lessons that could be described in eight words: dedication, caring, optimism, patience, respect, sacrifice, tolerance and passion.
She then reflected on the three most important qualities: “Optimism – having the right attitude as you deal with adversity and negative moments. Dedication – taking the time to devote yourself to whatever you want to accomplish…Most important is passion…You have to bring that special energy and desire to anything you do.”
Today, even in defeat, the Queen of Nice showed us her heart and once again captured ours.