Clijsters the US Open and the Wimbledon Roof

KIm Clijsters

Kim Clijsters wins the US Open. The story is hailed as a remarkable example of happenchance. But was it?

A wonderful win for Kim Clijsters at the US Open [September 2009]. The match stood above a seemingly endless sequence of technically correct but stereotyped women’s contests of recent times. Her young opponent Caroline Wozniacki showed enough tennis to suggest she will win major tournaments in the future., and enough charisma to ensure a sparkling career.

Tennis remains a minority sport in most countries. Maybe recently it has grown in popularity through Justin Henin and ‘the other Belgian’ player, Kim Clijsters. Maybe in Switzerland through Roger Federer’s impact globally. Too often, the sport can be upstaged, even during Open Championships by some other sports story from football, golf, or athletics, perhaps accompanied by impact of non-sporting shock-horror chemicals abuse.

Even Kim’s tale this week was in danger of being upstaged by the bizarre end to her semi-final win over tournament favourite Serena Williams, who was reduced to a blind rage over line calls and defaulted at match-point. The media nearly forgot the other story.

Kim’s Tale

Here is Kim’s tale. Clijsters shows precocious talent as a junior, but another junior from her own country, Justin Henin was to overtake her and become world No 1 and a multi-slam winner.

Both retire young to seek more stable family lives. Klijsters has a baby, daughter Jada, and appears to be settling for comfortable domesticity away from the sporting headlines.

Then she took part in a match to commemorate (bizarrely) a new roof. OK, a new roof on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, but the event still seems to capture something about the slight nuttiness of Tennis and its promotion. Kim plays a set with three iconic figures, partnering Tim Henman, England’s almost man of tennis, and the sport’s most glamorous couple, and suprstars, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff

The exhibition game demonstrates the special skills of its very top performers. It still leaves the impression that the enjoyment (as with most so-called senior events) has little to do with the chances of the players competing again at the highest level.

Immediately after the display, almost jokingly, Clijsters remarks that she might just give tournament tennis another go.

After a few warm-up tournaments, she gets a wild-card into the US Open. There is some press interest in her early rounds, to catch the dram of her inevitable demise. But there wasn’t an early-round demise. Her progress to the final included wins not just over Serena but over her formidable sister Venus.

Making sense of the story

The story as it is being told (you might say as it is being weaved or spun) is that ‘if Kim hadn’t played at Wimbledon in the roof-opening exhibition, she would never had an opportunity to rediscover her appetite for the game.’ It is a plausible idea, and I can nearly believe it.

It fits nicely into a widespread belief in fate or luck playing a part in our destinies. ‘If only I had done that …’ ‘If I hadn’t caught that particular train…’. ‘If Kim hadn’t accepted the invite to Wimbledon.’

Her’s another possibility. A year into being a mum with an much-loved daughter, Clijsters begins to miss something. She watches women players win events, and thinks maybe she could do better than that. She agrees to play in a event, and starts training hard because that’s what champions would do. She discovers, as with the Wimbledon experience, that she might still be able to get to the top again. Or she figures that a few million dollars might still make a worthwhile nest-egg. And where better than the US Open, scene of her only Open win, and arguably her best chance again? Puts togther a great back-up team.

Another variant: Kim, even while pregant. remained a celebrity. Jada has hardly been concealed from the media spotlight (her arrival on court after her mother’s US Open triumph was a media imperative).

There were quite a few forces which would have been active in urging Kim to come out of retirement.

My point is this. There may be many possible trigger points which produce what appears to be a tipping point change reaction. Such a trigger point is therefore special in one way, but not in another. There is a trajectory of events which is easier to anticipate, even if we can still marvel at the story which ‘all started at Wimbledon at the roof-ceremony’ .


Image showing the publicity machine in action from

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