Kim is number one in more ways than one

Clijsters has proven she is the best both on and off the court

On Monday 14 February 2011, Kim Clijsters will be ranked number one in the world for the fourth time.  Despite losing the Paris Open final earlier today to Petra Kvitova (one of my “Breakout Players” from the Australian Open a few weeks ago), Clijsters will take the top spot again for the first time since March 2006.  How appropriate for the most popular women’s champion of recent times.

Since she was last number one, a lot has changed for Kim.  She retired from tennis and married basketball player Brian Lynch in 2007, gave birth to daughter Jada in 2008 and, of course, came back to win her first Grand Slam of her “second career” – the US Open in 2009.  In true fairytale fashion, Clijsters became the first wildcard ever to win at Flushing Meadows and the first mother to win a Grand Slam in almost thirty years.  The crowds cheered and the papers praised – but the happy ending is still to come.

From that most memorable victory, Clijsters has barely stopped for breath.  Two consecutive year-end championships, another US Open title in 2010, and now an Australian Open crown as her fourth Slam victory.  Then there are the awards: Laureus World Comeback of the Year; Belgian Sportswoman of the Year (twice); WTA Player of the Year; not to mention the record of being the first mother ever to be world number one since computer rankings began thirty-five years ago.

The best thing about Kim Clijsters, though, is that none of these things – the awards, the accolades, the admiration – really seem to matter.  Of course she is overwhelmed and overjoyed with each Grand Slam win.  But what really makes her happy are the other things.  Her daughter, her husband, her team of great friends – these are the things that have truly propelled the 27-year-old to the top of the list again.

A quick look at Kim’s Twitter page tells you everything you need to know about her.  Is her wallpaper a photo of her hitting on court?  Maybe even lifting a trophy or accepting an award?  No.  It’s a picture of her holding her greatest prize, her daughter.  Even her bio speaks volumes: “Mother, wife, sister, daughter, tennis player – I have many aliases.”  The order of these words shows exactly how Clijsters carries herself – she is a mother and wife who happens to play tennis, and not the other way around.

It is this warm, personable character that has endeared players, press and fans alike over the years.  Clijsters is very highly thought of on the circuit and she is not short of friends – her Twitter is peppered with birthday greetings, good luck wishes and congratulatory messages for other players.  Her successive wins (and American husband) have made her a firm favourite in the US; she was asked to play the Wimbledon roof-opening exhibition alongside Tim Henman, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf; and she is still known as “Aussie Kim” despite her relationship with Lleyton Hewitt ending over six years ago, so keen are the Aussies to claim Clijsters as one of their own.

There are some who might regard the ranking with suspicion.  Aside from Serena Williams, the last three number one women – Caroline Wozniacki, Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic – have each failed to secure a Slam so far.  The Russians have largely retreated; fellow Belgian Justine Henin has been forced to retire (again) and, most significantly, the strong Serena has been out with injury since last summer.  Is it simply a matter of time before she returns to take the top spot back from the Belgian?

Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter.  Serena, when fit, might be technically the best on tour but with her talent comes tantrums, telling offs and too much jewellery.  If rankings were based on more than just match points then Kim Clijsters with her class, grace and humility would be number one every week of the year.  Not that it would really matter to her – she’s guaranteed her happy ending either way.

Martin McGale

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