Kim Clijsters' singles career ended where she wanted it to, just not the way she hoped.
The four-time Grand Slam champion lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) to 18-year-old Laura Robson of Britain in the second round of the US Open yesterday and will head into retirement after she finishes playing in doubles at Flushing Meadows.
Clijsters walked away from the sport once before, in May 2007, then returned after a 2-year hiatus. But now 29 and a mother, the Belgian insisted this season that she means it this time, and decided the US Open and its hard courts which she conquered on the way to three championships would be her final tournament.
"It's the place that has inspired me so much to do well and to do great things. It's hard to explain sometimes why," Clijsters said in an on-court interview, her face flushed and her eyes welling with tears.
"This completely feels like the perfect place to retire," Clijsters told the spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium, many of whom rose in a standing ovation. "I just wish it wasn't today."
The loss ended Clijsters' 22-match winning streak in New York, encompassing titles in 2005, 2009 and 2010, plus Tuesday's first-round victory.
She missed the hard-court major in 2004, 2006-08 and last year, thanks to a combination of injuries and the time she took off while starting a family. Her daughter, Jada, was born in February 2008. By August 2009, Clijsters was back on tour. Unseeded and unranked, because she played in only two previous tournaments during her comeback, she won that year's US Open.
"Since I retired the first time, it's been a great adventure for my team and my family," said Clijsters, who was 28-0 against players ranked outside the top 10 at the US Open before yesterday. "It's all been worth it. But I do look forward to the next part of my life coming up."
Her previous defeat at Flushing Meadows came against Belgian rival Justine Henin in 2003, in the tournament final. Robson was aged 9 at the time. This did have the feel, in some ways, of a changing of the guard.
Ranked 89th, and with only one previous victory over a top-25 player, Robson has been viewed particularly in Britain as an up-and-coming player whose smooth left-handed strokes would carry her far.
But she had never produced the kind of grit and court-covering athleticism that carried her past the 23rd-seeded Clijsters. Her claim to fame had been teaming for a silver medal in mixed doubles at the London Olympics with Andy Murray, who reached the US Open's third round by beating 118th-ranked Ivan Dodig of Croatia 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 in the last match yesterday.
Robson knows, though, how much Clijsters means to the game, not only as a superb player but as someone who by all accounts is universally liked by fans, tennis officials and even opponents.
When the contest ended they met at the net. Clijsters began to extend her arm for the customary handshake, and Robson pulled her in for a hug.
"I want to thank Kim," Robson told the crowd moments later, "for being such a great role model to me for so many years."
Less than an hour later, Clijsters was hanging out in the players' garden alongside the stadium. She shared a laugh with some friends, hugs with others, and paused to pose for a photograph alongside 14-time major champion Serena Williams, who was headed out after partnering sister Venus for a first-round victory in doubles.
Clijsters was the only seeded woman who lost during the afternoon session of day 3, when the winners included No1 Victoria Azarenka, four-time major champion Maria Sharapova, defending champion Sam Stosur, 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and 2011 French Open champion Li Na.