US 3.0 - Let It Be
To the end, Kim Clijsters saw fit to be something of a fly in the Backspin ointment. Bless her.
Wouldn't you know it, just a few hours after I officially named Clijsters the all-time Backspin MVP, her singles career came to a sudden end. I guess it was just all too much for the Tennis Gods to handle, and they just threw up their hands and gave up. They had no more knives to juggle... and just chose to never allow KC to actually win a match after having been given such a hard-earned "honor." Seriously, though... I've tracked Clijsters' career and presented it for so many years in the light of how it could be folded into the ongoing story of Backspin that I can't view any of her results in any other way anymore. So, please forgive me that little moment to do it one final time.
Of course, the true storyteller of this day was Laura Robson. The Australian-born, 18-year old Brit has a big game, with groundstrokes capable of being stinging weapons against the best players on tour. She played good 1st sets against Maria Sharapova in recent slams, losing opening tie-breaks before falling by the wayside against the more experienced player. Against Clijsters, in the final tournament of the three-time Open champ's career, Robson walked through the door left open by the Belgian and closed out her singles career, ending her 22-match U.S. Open winning streak (the second longest at the event by an Open era woman, behind Chris Evert's 31 wins) with a 7-6/7-6 win over the #23 seed. Clijsters hadn't lost a match in New York since she was beaten by Justine Henin in the 2003 final on the same Ashe Stadium court on which her singles career ended on Wednesday.
It didn't have to end quite this way for Clijsters. She led 5-3 in the 1st set, and held three set points. But once Robson was given new life, she just refused to go away. As the power of Robson's shots kept Clijsters at bay behind the baseline, she claimed the opening set tie-break and stayed with Clijsters throughout the 2nd. Or, should I say, Clijsters battled to stay with Robson. On several occasions, Robson looked about ready to take control of the 2nd set, only to see Clijsters hold on and push things closer to a second tie-break.
Clijsters saved two match points in game #12 to force the tie-break. Meanwhile, photographers jostled for position in the courtside pit, waiting to snap a photo of her the moment her Hall of Fame singles career came to an end, and the tension mounted in the stands as everyone sort of knew, in their collective heart, what they were about to witness. Finally, with the score at 5-5 in the breaker, Robson landed a brilliant forehand shot into the right hand corner of the backcourt to get to her third match point. Up 6-5, Robson delivered a good serve to Clijsters backhand and the suddenly-retired vet shot her return long.
Just like that, it was over. One round before Clijsters would have faced Li Na in the 3rd Round, with the Chinese woman's coach, and ex-coach of Clijsters' longtime rival Henin, Carlos Rodriguez, in the stands. I admit, I really wanted that final Clijsters-vs.-Henin, albeit by proxy, on-court contest. Thanks, Kim... you just HAD to leave me wanting more, didn't you? Sheesh.
Meanwhile, although Robson has been on the WTA's radar since she won the junior Wimbledon title in 2008, this was just her second Top 25 victory. The first came last month, over Lucie Safarova at the Olympics. The youngest player ranked in the Top 100, Robson's career just took a huge step. At Clijsters' expense.
While Clijsters has known this moment was coming for quite a while now, she didn't seem to know exactly what to do when it actually came. There was a sadness in her eyes, but also something of a sense of relief on her face that it was finally over. Because of that, she didn't exploit the moment for any extra outpouring of affection. For a player who has always courted the approval of the fans in the stands, her immediate actions and words during her on-court interview weren't dripping with the sort of emotion for which you know the crowd would have rewarded her with even more lavish applause than she actually received.
Actually, I liked that. In an odd way, it felt more real. Clijsters didn't need to actively seek the approval of anyone in this moment. She knew she had it. She'd let her actions, not any post-match manipulations, speak for her over the three years of KC 2.0, and she knew she'd earned respect through her tennis, not just because she was "so nice."
Or maybe that's just what was going through MY mind. At this point, after all these years, I can't really tell where the real Kim Clijsters ends and "Barbie" begins, or vice versa... and maybe that's the best tribute I can give her. I will actually miss having her around.
And there's not a speck of sarcasm in my words when I say it.
=DAY 3 NOTES=
...Clijsters is still alive in Doubles and Mixed, so I'll hold off on my "Dear Kim" letter until she's actually finished up. She and Kirsten Flipkens (who also lost today, as the Belgians followed up their 3-0 1st Round with a 0-3 2nd Round) play their first match on Day 4. She's also teamed in Mixed Doubles with Bob Bryan (they could face #2-seeded Lisa Raymond and Mike Bryan in the 2nd Round).
...hmmm, let's see. Vika in a day-glow yellow top. Check. Entering the court in a pulled-up hoodie. Check. Ear buds in. Check. Yep, some or all of that should piss somebody off somewhere. So... mission accomplished. Go, Vika!
Oh, yeah. Azarenka won, too, defeating Flipkens (making a comeback after blood clots were discovered in her leg earlier this year and she thought her career might be in jeopardy), 6-2/6-2. So it was a REALLY good day for the Belarusian. While she's being virtually ignored at this Open, even as she's the #1-ranked player playing on her best surface, on which she won a slam just seven months ago, let it be known that Vika is now 28-2 on hard courts in '12. One of those losses was a retirement just a few weeks ago, and the other was the loss to Marion Bartoli in Miami that ended her exhausting 26-match winning streak to begin the season.
Speaking of Bartoli, La Trufflette defeated Romina Oprandi, 6-2/1-6/7-5 on Wednesday. Bartoli's win means Caroline Wozniacki will fall out of the Top 10 for the first time in more than three years (173 weeks) when the next WTA rankings are released on September 10.
Li Na won't be facing Clijsters in the 3rd Round, but she might be wise to avoid having the sort of mini-lapse against Robson that she had today against Casey Dellacqua. After winning the 1st set, Li fell down 4-0 in the 2nd before surging back to take the match by a 6-4/6-4 score.
Nadia Petrova defeated Simona Halep, 6-1/6-1. Oh, Nadia (again)!
Two wild cards have advanced to the 3rd Round. Mallory Burdette (USA) upset Lucie Hradecka, while Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) brought out Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova's occasionally-seen bad grand slam side, taking out the #17 seed 6-1/6-2. Meanwhile, qualifiers who reached the 2nd Round were 0-5 today, so if the four that play on Day 4 go winless there won't even be an official "Last Qualifier Standing" at this Open.
...in doubles, there were no apparent hard feelings from Vania King toward Yaroslava Shvedova for beating her in the 1st Round of singles, as the two teamed up to defeat Hercog/Klepac 6-0/6-1 in the 1st Round. Serena & Venus won, too, though Serena had to take a medical time-out after rolling her ankle behind the baseline during a rally (considering her issues with her feet in recent seasons, THAT will surely be something to keep an eye one). Also, in a case of if-you-can't-beat-her-join-her, Angelique Kerber & Tamira Paszek (remember, the Austrian's comeback from 5 MP down against Kerber in the Eastbourne final?) combined to knock out Begu/Cornet; and JJ and "Wrong Way" Jovanovski lost to the all-German team of Barthel & Malek.
...LIKES FROM DAY 3:
-- or, should I say, Day 4? Venus Williams and Kerber are scheduled as the final match on Ashe tomorrow night. Maybe we'll finally get our first competitive night session contest of this Open. If we're lucky.
-- Petra Kvitova's on-set interview on ESPN2. My, her English and ease in the spotlight have improved. Of course, playing like a house-on-fire for the last month WILL put a player in a good mood.
...DISLIKES FROM DAY 3:
-- I probably won't get the opportunity to complain about this again, so I will now. Naturally, after Clijsters' loss, and during her on-set interview afterward, the ESPNers once again went along with the party line about how it was the most amazing feat ever accomplished in the history of humankind when the Belgian won the Open in '09 after having had a child. Many world class female athletes in other sports have taken breaks to have children, then returned to their sport. And, of course, that Evonne Goolagong did the exact same thing in tennis in the early 1980's pretty much proves that the act of doing such a thing isn't something that only a superhuman could ever consider. But why let facts get in the way, even after three years to realize the rather limited view of the opinion.
As I talked about in the final MVP list post, the fact that Clijsters was able to leave the sport for ANY reason for over two years, barely pick up a racket during her time away, then come back BETTER (until the injuries mounted, at least) than she was before was the TRULY remarkable thing about her comeback. And that was an ATHLETIC feat, not just the athletic act of a mother. Just ask Justine Henin, who was off tour for a shorter period of time than Clijsters and DIDN'T have a baby, how difficult it is to pick up a high-level athletic career after having given it up. That's a difficult thing to recapture, let alone improve upon, under any circumstances.
Why have these people never stopped and wondered why it's been such a rare thing for a grand slam winner to also be a mother? How about, maybe, that it's because it isn't "normal" for a top player to retire, as Clijsters did, at 23, right in the middle of their peak athletic years. Most have waited until their careers are over (as KC will now likely do in Retirement 2.0) before deciding to have children since doing otherwise would mean losing 1-2 prime years in their athletic careers. Are we really to believe that someone such as Steffi Graf couldn't have had her first child at 24, then resumed here career at 25 or 26 and won slams? And if she hadn't, it wouldn't have been because she was a mother, it would have been because of her long period of inactivity.
Not that I've ever been a big defender of KC, but I think the too-easy, party line of thinking actually sells Clijsters' accomplishment short. It gives her no credit for being a great athlete or tennis player, and only bestows recognition upon her for being a mother. Imagine that... the sports media never thinking along the lines of a female player being an actual athlete, yet always having front of mind the notion that she is or could be a mother. Hard to believe, huh?
But, of course, I guess I'll now officially give up on my "dream" that any of this will actually make it past the ESPN censors. Well, at least until another top tennis player interrupts her career to have a baby, then returns to win a grand slam. And with careers lasting as long as they do nowadays, it WILL happen again.
-- Oh, and while I'm at it, I'd like to know exactly what was going in the head of the ESPN2 director/producer who decided to have Chris Evert discuss an on-screen graphic of the women's draw rather than show Clijsters as she was leaving Ashe court for the very last time as a singles player. I'm figuring it was the same director/producer who never thought it'd be a good idea to show, or have the commentators discuss, Wozniacki's evening loss on Tuesday until the match was already over, although the network wasn't actually showing any tennis as the Dane was being shown the door by Irina-Camelia Begu. No matter where she stands now, you'd think the "official" coverage of a grand slam would include a live match call of a player of Wozniacki's stature, considering it was pretty obvious that she was about to lose. After all, the Dane DID reach the Open final in '09, was the top seed in 2010 and '11, and was ranked #1 earlier this season.
But, then again, once the night session coverage begins at 7pm, it seems that ESPN2 forgets that its covering a SLAM, and suddenly believes its airing a talk show, with a little tennis on Ashe thrown in between the long, multi-commentator discussions about absolutely nothing.
I'm just saying.
...????? FROM DAY 3:
-- Memo to Pam Shriver: the word "butt" is not a curse word. During her post-match on-court interview with Robson, Shriver acted as if she'd suddenly been stung by a bee in the butt when the Brit talked about "working her butt off" during the Clijsters match. Although the teenager had already thought to "sanitize" her language, Shriver saw fit to repeat back the line, replacing "butt" with the more family-friendly, apparently, "bottom." Seriously, I don't why she pulled that whole scene out of her ass. (Wink.)
...and, finally, here's a 2011 CNN report about Vickie Duval's tough background:
*CLIJSTERS 2.0 SLAM RESULTS*
AO: 3rd Rd.
RG: 2nd Rd.
WI: 4th Rd.
US: 2nd Rd.
*BACKSPIN 2012 "SURPRISE" WINNERS*
JAN: Sara Errani, ITA
FEB: Alexandra Panova, RUS
MAR: Jamie Hampton, USA
1Q=SARA ERRANI, ITA
APR: Kiki Bertens, NED
MAY: Silvia Soler-Espinosa, EP
2Q/CC=KIKI BERTENS, NED
JUN: Urszula Radwanska, POL
2Q/GC=SANDRA ZANIEWSKA, POL
JUL: Coco Vandeweghe, USA
AUG: Marina Erakovic/Heather Watson, NZL/GBR
[2012 Weekly "Surprise" Wins]
3...Varvara Lepchenko, USA
3...Paula Ormaechea, ARG
3...Silvia Soler-Espinosa, ESP
3...Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor, ESP
3...Stefanie Voegele, SUI
3...Sandra Zaniewska, POL
3...Angelique Kerber, GER
2...Nina Bratchikova, RUS
2...Heidi El Tabakh, CAN
2...Olga Govortsova, UKR
2...Mathilde Johansson, FRA
2...Vania King, USA
2...Romina Oprandi, SUI
2...Alexandra Panova, RUS
2...Pauline Parmentier, FRA
2...Irena Pavlovic, FRA
2...Urszula Radwanska, POL
2...Anna Tatishvili, GEO
TOP QUALIFIER: #1q Magdalena Rybarikova, SVK
TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): xx
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): xx
TOP LATE-ROUND (SF-F): xx
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: (WC) Krista Hardebeck/USA def. Tamaryn Hendler/BEL 7-6(9)/5-7/7-6(3)
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): xx
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): xx
TOP LATE-RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): xx
TOP ASHE NIGHT SESSION MATCH: xx
FIRST WINNER: Anna Tatishvili/GEO (def. Foretz-Gacon/FRA)
FIRST SEED OUT: #27 Anabel Medina-Garrigues/ESP (lost to Hradecka/CZE)
UPSET QUEENS: xx
REVELATION LADIES: xx
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Germany (four of five highest-ranked Germans fell in 1st Round)
CRASH & BURN: Nominees: #8 Wozniacki/DEN (lost 1st Rd. to Begu, after Open #1 seed in 2010-11; second straight 1st Rd. slam loss); #23 Clijsters/BEL (lost 2nd Rd. to Robson; ends 22-match U.S. Open match win streak)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: xx
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: xx in 2nd Rd.
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Mallory Burdette/USA & Kristina Mladenovic/FRA in 2nd Rd.
LAST BANNERETTE STANDING: xx
COMEBACK PLAYER: xx
LADY OF THE EVENING: xx
DOUBLES STAR xx
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: xx
All for Day 3. More tomorrow.