For the first time in nine years, Kim Clijsters lost a match at the U.S. Open. And just like that her singles career is done. Again.
Clijsters, the 23rd seed in the women's draw suffered a staggering upset loss to 18-year-old Brit Laura Robson on Wednesday in Arthur Ashe Stadium, 6-7 (4), 6-7 (5). The loss sends her off into the sunset of retirement just two rounds in.
It was her first loss at the Open since the 2003 finals. Since then she won the title in 2005 then again in 2009 and 2010 after coming out of retirement. She missed the tournament in 2011 due to injury. To put it in better perspective, Robson was just 9 years old the last time Clijsters lost in New York.
Clijsters made it clear that this would be her swan song, at the tournament where she had her greatest triumphs. As is often the case, sadly she won't be going out as triumphantly.
Clearly this isn't how Clijsters envisioned going out. After the clear favorites, most considered Clijsters to be in the mix for another title. She had a tough draw -- even tougher than originally thought as Robson proved Wednesday -- but she also had the pedigree. New York has been her city in recent years. Maybe she didn't come in expecting to win a fourth straight Open for her, but going out in the second round came as a surprise. No, a shock.
"This completely feels like the perfect place to retire," Clijsters said immediately after the match. "I just wish it wasn't today.
"I do look forward to having the next part of my life coming up."
She didn't seem to be out of shape or anything except out of sorts. In the first-set tie-break she had the mini-break until Robson rattled off three consecutive points to take the set.
Lost in the story of Clijsters' career coming to an end was the work of Robson. The young Brit had the match of her life, keeping Clijsters deeper on the court than she is used to and off balance. Clijsters, known for great defensive ability and skidding stops even on the hard courts, couldn't keep up.
The nerves were apparent as the match hit crunch time. Everybody in the stadium knew more than the match was on the line. Kim's career was too. It was seen on the face of her husband, seemingly living and dying with the highs and lows of every point. All the while, Robson kept her composure when you thought she would crack.
The shot of the match was the only the for all intents and purposes won it. Robson chased down a hard shot in the far corner from Clijsters and flipped a hard forehand right down the line, just clipping the paint for the point and the mini-break. One great serve and a hopeless ball fluttering back, Robson had finished Clijsters off.
Imagine the spot for the young Robson, feeling the elation of the biggest win of your career while feeling the bitterness of being the one to end the career of one of her idols.
"Thanks to Kim for being such a great role model for so many years," Robson said following the win. "I've grown up watching you."
The effervescent Belgian leaves the game maybe not as one of the all-time greats, but certainly one of the better players of her generation. She had the unfortunate role of playing in many of the same years of her dominant compatriot, Justine Henin. Of course the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova were in there as well. You've probably heard of them before, too.
Still, she is one of the great U.S. Open champions. She exits as just one of 19 women to ever win the championship at least three times in her career, joining some awfully elite company. She endeared herself to the crowd in New York over the years to the point she seemed to be treated like an American on the court. That's what happens not only when you win but you do it with the class and exuberance that Clijsters always exhibited.
The only other Slam she takes home is her title from the 2011 Aussie Open. She was the runner-up in four other Slams -- one in New York, one in Melbourne and two from Roland Garros.
She was even better outside of the Slams. Overall she racked up 41 singles titles on the WTA tour and another 11 on the doubles side. Her 80.5 career winning percentage in WTA events is 10th best all-time.
All of that came with taking a break in the middle of her career to start a family. She came back better than ever after having her daughter in 2008. She did the near impossible in the sport and won a Grand Slam (a few of them to be precise) after becoming a mother.
Now at 29 she is going to return to Belgium and focus on her family again. This time surely for good.