NEW YORK—Kim Clijsters’ singles career ended at approximately 6:30pm this evening before a regrettably sparse crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium. The Belgian, a three-time U.S. Open champion and former world No. 1, was defeated in the second round by the UK’s Laura Robson, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5).
The upset (Robson is ranked No. 88) proved a double shock, as Clijsters seemed in control early on. With a break in hand after the fourth game, the Belgian was excruciatingly close to nabbing the set in under half an hour: Leading 5-2, with Robson serving, Clijsters took her 18-year-old opponent to deuce six times and held one set point.
So credit the youngster, who at times seemed on the brink of giving into junior-ish frustrations and angst, for holding her nerve and stepping up at all the right moments. She took the first set in just under an hour, in part due to her elevating her game and in part due to Clijsters’ occasionally and increasingly scratchy play. Roughly 30 minutes after Clijsters’ set point, Robson won the tiebreaker as a Clijsters return sailed long.
It seemed that the missed opportunity and lost set had roused Clijsters’ friendly ferocity. She broke in the second set’s third game, helped in part by consecutive double faults from the Robson. But as more and more of her groundstrokes found the net (Clijsters hit 33 unforced errors to Robson’s 28), it became clear that Clijsters—perhaps owing to the looming threat of singles mortality—wasn’t at her best today, a point emphasized as she handed the break back in the next game with a double fault of her own.
The last two games of the set, and ensuing tiebreaker, were high drama. At 5-all, 30-all, the crowd, which had grown to semi-respectable size, was treated to a vintage Clijsters moment as she scrambled from well behind the baseline, stretching, splitting, and squeaking to run down a number of would-be winners by Robson. One was a smash, which she lobbed up and earned a break point as Robson put the follow-up smash into the net. But Robson held.
Clijsters seemed rattled, making uncharacteristic poor decisions in the next game, including an ill-advised net approach that invited an easy pass, and a drop shot that Robson ran down that produced two break points—that were also match points. But Clijsters saved them with a courageous swinging forehand volley winner and an ace and went on to hold for 6-all.
The second-set tiebreaker saw no less than three mini-breaks followed immediately by mini-break-backs, keeping things on serve. But at 5-5, Robson unleashed a pinpoint, down-the-line, go-for-broke winner that skipped off the baseline and once again brought her to match point. As she did on the last point of the first-set tiebreaker, Clijsters put her return long, and the match—as well her singles career—were suddenly over. (She’s still playing in the doubles and mixed doubles events.)
For all of the attention being heaped on the milestone this represents for Clijsters, attention must be paid to Robson, who at times seemed overwhelmed by the occasion but appeared to mature as the match went on. With the confidence of this victory, easily the biggest of her young singles career (she won silver in mixed doubles at the Olympics earlier this month), it will be telling to watch her next match(es) here. On the heels of Sloane Stephens’ win over Francesca Schiavone yesterday, there are some new women to keep an eye on at this year’s U.S. Open.