The four-time Grand Slam champion lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) to 18-year-old Laura Robson in the second round of the U.S. Open on Wednesday, and will head into retirement after she finishes playing in doubles at Flushing Meadows.
On the men’s side, Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray reached the third round for the seventh year in a row, beating 118th-ranked Ivan Dodig 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 on Wednesday night.
The third-seeded Murray saved all three break points he faced against Dodig, who never has made it past the second round at any Grand Slam tournament.
Murray was the runner-up at Wimbledon this year, joining his coach, Ivan Lendl, as the only men in tennis history to lose their first four major finals. Murray also fell one win shy of a title at the U.S. Open in 2008, and the Australian Open at 2010 and 2011.
Clijsters walked away from the sport once before, in May 2007, then returned after a 21/2-year hiatus.
But now 29 and a mother, the Belgian insisted this season that she means it this time, and decided the U.S. Open – and its hard courts that she conquered on the way to three championships – would be her final tournament.
“It’s the place that has inspired me so much to do well and to do great things. It’s hard to explain sometimes why,” Clijsters said, her face flushed and her eyes welling with tears.
“This completely feels like the perfect place to retire. I just wish it wasn’t today.”
The loss ended Clijsters’ 22-match winning streak in New York, encompassing titles in 2005, 2009 and 2010, plus Monday’s first-round victory.
She missed the hard-court major in 2004, 2006-08 and last year, thanks to a combination of injuries and the time she took off while starting a family. Her daughter, Jada, was born in February 2008. By August 2009, Clijsters was back on tour; unseeded and unranked, because she only played in two previous tournaments during her comeback, she won that year’s U.S. Open.
“Since I retired the first time, it’s been a great adventure for my team and my family,” said Clijsters, who was 28-0 against players ranked outside the top 10 at the U.S. Open before Wednesday.
Clijsters was the only seeded woman who lost during the afternoon session of Day 3, when the winners included No. 1 Victoria Azarenka and defending champion Sam Stosur.
Four-time major champion Maria Sharapova was a 6-0, 6-1 winner Wednesday night over 78th-ranked Lourdes Dominguez Lino.
Earlier on Ashe, the highest-ranked American man, John Isner, let out a big exhale of relief while waving to the crowd after getting past an argumentative Xavier Malisse 6-3, 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (9) in the first round.
“I know in the nitty-gritty times of a match, I always have that confidence and all those wins in my back pocket,” said Isner, who is 37-13 in tiebreakers this season.
The 6-foot-9 Isner hit 20 aces and ended things with a service winner on his third match point. That came after Malisse pushed an easy backhand volley into the net, then grabbed the ball and shoved it in his mouth and chomped on it as though it were an apple.
The 57th-ranked Malisse, a 2002 Wimbledon semifinalist, was louder and angrier during a few exchanges with the chair umpire and even members of the crowd, earning a warning for profanity.
“Half of the crowd doesn’t understand what’s going on,” Malisse said. “They yell. We’re in New York. So you’re going to get more yells. That’s fine by me. ... (But) I’m going to say something back.”
There were no such shenanigans during Clijsters vs. Robson, simply plenty of terrific play.
With her husband – Brian Lynch, an American who used to play professional basketball in Belgium – fidgeting from his front-row seat in the stands, Clijsters wound up getting the worse of lengthy exchanges. As big a forehand as Clijsters owns, Robson was out-hitting her, compiling a 16-11 edge in winners off that wing.
Clijsters went up a break in the second set, helped by a pair of double-faults by a slightly shaky Robson – nerves that were understandable, given the setting and the significance of this match. But Robson got right back in it, playing gutsy, go-for-the-lines tennis, repeatedly pounding the ball hard as can be, and seeing shots land right where she aimed.
“I really enjoyed myself out there,” said Robson, who found herself singing along to the pop songs that blare over loudspeakers during changeovers.
As you might expect from a teen, the youngest player ranked in the WTA’s top 100.
Try as she might, Clijsters could not quite gain the upper hand, no matter how many times she yelled “Come on!” and raised a clenched fist after winning points.
On one well-disguised drop shot by Robson, Clijsters raced forward and did her trademark splits through the doubles alley, stretching to get her racket on the ball. But her response landed in the net.
“I just wasn’t good enough at the end of the match,” Clijsters acknowledged.
She won’t get the chance to play another.
“As a little girl, I got Christmas rackets under the tree and outfits of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, and I would want to wear them to bed, I was so excited,” Clijsters said. “So for me to have been able to have been a part of women’s tennis, and on top of women’s tennis for so many years <0x2014> you don’t think about it when you’re in it; you’re kind of on automatic pilot. ... Now that I think about it, it’s been a crazy rollercoaster at times, as well.”