The American and the Belgian are both 34, and their careers were almost exactly concurrent. They joined the tour at the turn of the century and retired within days of each other at the 2012 U.S. Open. Five years later, they’re both first-ballot Hall of Famers.
These days, 34 sounds like young for a player to receive tennis’ final honor in Newport. Clijsters’ and Roddick’s two primary nemeses, Serena Williams and Roger Federer, are still out on tour winning majors at 35. Roddick and Clijsters, it seems, were the last in the long line of players who made their breakthroughs as teenagers and hung up their racquets when they crossed that ancient, and now vanished, tennis Rubicon of 30.
Clijsters turned pro in 1997, at age 14. Two weeks after her 16th birthday, she made a stunning Grand Slam debut by coming out of qualifying to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon. She retired for the first time at 24 in 2007, before coming back to win three more majors and reach No. 1 as a mom.
Roddick turned pro in 2000, at 18. In 2001, he signaled a changing of the U.S. men’s guard when he beat Pete Sampras in Miami and Michael Chang at the French Open. In 2003, he recorded his first win over Andre Agassi, won the U.S. Open and finished No. 1. Roddick would spend nine straight years in the Top 10, and see his career-long commitment to U.S. tennis rewarded with a Davis Cup title in 2007.
At first, Roddick and Clijsters looked like they could be the first great players of the 21st century. His 140-m.p.h serve was an evolutionary advance for the game, and in those days his forehand was nearly as lethal. Clijsters, the ultra-athletic daughter of a gymnast and a soccer player, was at once a power baseliner and an acrobat. We winced in awe whenever she did a full split as she chased down a forehand.
But it didn’t take long for each of them to collide with someone who was better than they were, and who would stay better.
Clijsters met her match almost immediately, at the 1999 U.S. Open, when she faced a 17-year-old Serena in the third round. That much-anticipated showdown between two major winners of the future proved prophetic. Clijsters led 5-3 in the third set, but Serena won the last four games. The next week, Serena would win the first of her 23 Slams; it would take Clijsters another six years to win the first of her four.
Roddick’s experience with Federer was similar. Federer won their first four meetings, but his mastery was most clearly displayed at Wimbledon in 2003. Coming into the event, the two young men were co-favorites to win their first major. Federer had won the tune-up in Halle, while Roddick had done the same at Queen’s. But Federer put a quick and decisive end to the competition when he played rings around Roddick in the semis, before going on to win the first of his 19 majors.
Roddick and Clijsters would win their share of races, but they would also be known for getting passed at the finish line. Clijsters lost her first four Grand Slam finals, while Roddick lost all four that he played against Federer. In her first, at the 2001 French Open, Clijsters lost 12-10 in the third set to Jennifer Capriati. In his last, at Wimbledon in 2009, Roddick lost 16-14 in the fifth set to Federer.
If Clijsters and Roddick weren’t the greatest players of their era, they were among the most resilient. Clijsters’ natural talent was never so apparent as when she came out of retirement in the summer of 2009, played two tournaments and won the U.S. Open in her third. And whether it was a new coach, a new playing style or a new training regimen, Roddick was always willing to go in a different direction in order to get the most out of his game. That loss to Federer in the ’09 Wimbledon final was the best match Roddick ever played. Five years later, Clijsters’ and Roddick’s careers look a little better than they did when they retired. No one younger than Kim has come along to give Serena a serious run, and no American man has come along to fill Roddick’s shoes.
In both of their cases, though, their appeal in retrospect is less about what they did on court than how they acted off it. Their personalities, rather than their records, are what the Hall of Fame will celebrate this weekend.
Clijsters has always been described as “nice,” and that hasn’t changed. At Wimbledon this year, I saw her happily chatting and laughing with various journalists as if they were old friends. She’s a star, but she never holds herself above anyone she meets; when you talk to her, you feel like you know her. To say an athlete is “nice,” of course, is not typically considered a compliment, and perhaps Clijsters would have won more if she had a mean streak. But she didn’t, and it wasn’t like her to pretend that she did. Because of that, no player was more popular with her peers. With her Slam wins and time at No. 1, Clijsters proved that nice tennis players can finish first.
Roddick, sharp, witty and straight-talking, had a bigger personality. He wasn’t always a model citizen, but he was someone who could give you a thoughtful answer on just about any subject. And for a No. 1 player, he was highly self-aware and self-deprecating, a fact that has only become more evident since he retired. In 2013, Roddick attended a gala event in New York to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ATP’s computer rankings. Surrounded by fellow former No. 1s like Federer, Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg, he landed the line of the night when he said, “I’m proud to be the worst player in this room.”
At the Hall of Fame in Newport, Roddick may feel the same way, and he’s OK with that.
“I’ll be in the room,” he says with quiet satisfaction. “When you think of yourself in there with someone like Rod Laver, you feel the gravity of it.
“I can’t compare myself with guys like that, but just to have that commonality with your heroes is a great feeling.”
Roddick and Clijsters are in the room. And when their ageless peers and nemeses—Roger, Rafa, Venus, Serena—finally join them in Newport, they’ll be proud to be in there with Andy and Kim.
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