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Thursday, August 30, 2012
Clijsters graciously closes out career in Open loss

By Jane McManus

NEW YORK -- Kim Clijsters had mentally prepared to retire. She had explained to her young daughter, Jada, what will happen. She has made plans for the future with her husband, Brian Lynch. But she still was not prepared to have her last major cut short in the second round of the U.S. Open by a young British player in two sets, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5).

"This completely feels like the perfect place to retire, I just wish it wasn't today," Clijsters said.

But it was. Ranked 89th in the world, Laura Robson pushed Clijsters to two tiebreaks and won them both. It was the first match the No. 23 seed had lost in four years at the U.S. Open  she won in 2009 and 2010 and didn't play in 2011.

"Kim did fight," Lynch said. "She has nothing to be ashamed of, she left it out there."

As the second set wore on the crowd reacted to the possibility that this could be Clijsters' last singles match. Friends in her player's box leaned forward with hands over their mouths. Lynch sat pinched with tension, unable to find a way to comfortably fold his 6-foot-6 frame.

"Today was a tough one to watch," Lynch said. "It was probably the most unsettled I've been in a seat since watching her play, because I could feel the fact that there is no tomorrow for her."

Another U.S. Open title would have been a nice way to go out. It worked for Pete Sampras in 2002. But it wasn't meant to be for the Belgian, lauded around the WTA as the utter opposite of a diva. She has always been gracious here, smiling at ball kids and locker room attendants, people who might seem invisible to some of the megawatt personalities at a Grand Slam event.

"I don't like it to be her last match, I want her to keep playing," Billie Jean King said.

But even as Clijsters was disappointed with some of her points, she is excited about the possibilities ahead. Her daughter Jada will go to school. Lynch will continue with his basketball business, and Clijsters will have to craft a second incarnation that includes tennis in some way. Lynch and Clijsters also want to grow their young family.

"Hopefully we'll have some luck and bring some more children into this world," Lynch said.

Clijsters' second career would not have been possible without Lynch, a former professional basketball player. As evidenced by their high-drama pingpong matches in the garage, Lynch has always understood Clijsters' mindset when it came to sports  and why she needed to return.

In 2008 after Jada was born, Clijsters stepped away from the game. Her father, Lei, was battling cancer at the time, and his death in January 2009 was extremely difficult. Even though Clijsters was home, "It wasn't like we had a normal life," Lynch said.

Tennis was a respite for Clijsters in the wake of her father's death. She would play, and hit the ball as hard as she could to release all of her pent-up frustration.

"It helped me get rid of a lot of emotions and let me have a focus on something," Clijsters said. "I was able to just let a lot of energy out."

But what came next would have been impossible without Lynch. The inevitable mother's guilt, knowing that perhaps Jada has a fever and she wants to be the one by her side but she is at a tournament and can't rearrange the draw. Through moments like that, she credits a nanny she is completely comfortable with, and of course Lynch.

"I wouldn't have been able to do this if he would have said, 'No, I want to keep playing basketball and I want our daughter to stay home and I want you to stay home,'" Clijsters said.

"She always had me and Jada behind her and that made it easier for her," Lynch said.

So now the family gets more of Clijsters, which is exactly how she has explained her retirement to Jada, saying, "When I'm done with this tournament, I'll be there and I'll do all those fun things with you," she said. "Or at least I'll try."

Tennis was a hazy childhood dream when Kim Clijsters got Steffi Graf's tennis outfit under the tree one Christmas. It would have been impossible to know that she would one day follow Graf's path onto the professional tour, win three U.S. Open championships on a surface and in a place she came to view as uniquely her own.

"I've always felt when I stepped on the hard court I was the player that I wanted to be," Clijsters said.

It will be hard for many on tour to see such a generous and friendly player bow out.

"For me the thing that I love most about her is that she's the most caring person I've ever met," Lynch said. "I think that's why players are so sad to see her go."