I must say, I have no idea what to make of Kim Clijsters taking the tennis player’s equivalent to a nun’s vow of chastity—she will never, for the rest of her career, retain a coach. The most obvious interpretation here is that Kim was disgusted by the way her split with Marc De Hous became a Big Story—one in which she was slammed in various places for giving him a lousy seven-grand bonus for helping her win the U.S. Open.
And remember, because she also won the U.S. Open Series, Kim walked out of Arthur Ashe Stadium with a check for over two million bucks.
After that news broke, Kamakshi from Court Coverage sent me an update, translating from Kim’s own website. The thrust of the Kim’s comments, according to the multi-talented Kamakshi (you can translate them from the French if you’re up to it):
Note the bitter undercurrent in her words. Later, a message from De Hous himself appeared. In it, he said he wanted to rebut the reports that he got only $7,500 for the U.S. Open, adding that the figure represented a bonus over-and-above the terms of the (confidential) financial agreement he had with the Clijsters family.
Does anybody else share my feeling that here, as in most cases when people say, This isn’t about the money, it’s about . . . the money?
One possibility here is that De Hous forced Kim’s hand, and she wasn't about to roll over for him, bad press or not. I'm not sure how much De Hous has done for Clijsters, but I do know that there are a lot of coaches out there—and note, they’re all men—who seem to have found work that involves a lot more coasting than counseling and strategizing.
This is very tricky territory (the best landscape to muck around in, no?), where you can sound like a feminist sympathizer at one moment (the Horror! the Horror!) and a sexist pig (who me?) the next, because conflicting things often appear to be true when it comes to woman players and male coaches (not that similar cases don’t exist among the male players):
Male coaches exploit the apparently greater need typical female pros have for the kind of comfort, security and hand-holding that a coach provides (some elements in Justin Gimelstob’s recent blog-rant were, regrettably, true). That can, but doesn’t necessarily, spell R-I-P-O-F-F.
Trust me—I’ve known enough coaches who little respect for their female charges, but also lack the integrity to turn down the money and perks that come with the job.
On the other hand, the psychological warfare on the WTA tour can be pretty intense, and having your own coach sends some pretty powerful signals: I am somebody, I have my own coach! I am working on my game, all the time. I am an empowered woman who can afford to have her own hitting partner-gofer-grief counselor, and guess what? He’s a man, and he’s at my beck-and-call at all hours of the day or night. I asked God if this was all right, by the way, and She said “Sure!”
In any event, the suspicions about Kim’s dramatic, open-and-shut announcement is that it sounds almost like the result of a fit of pique. It's right on the heels of her break with De Hous, as if she’s what she's really saying is, “If that’s how coaches are going to be, fine! Heck with ‘em!”
Then again, maybe Kim is going Old School, asserting her independence, and rejecting the rock-star syndrome. Maybe she doesn’t get an especially big kick out of watching some 50-year-old guy running around trying to find her Sleepy Time Almond Sunset tea. Now she can also save a few shekels in the process.
Good for Kim.
This may be the most dramatic statement of autonomy a top female tennis player has made in recent memory, and it reminds me of Evonne Goolagong-Cawley in her heyday. She never had a coach, properly speaking, after she parted with her mentor, Vic Edwards.
And consider this: The other Grand Slam title winner of 2005 who goes coachless (for all practical purposes) is Roger Federer.
Not bad company, huh?
I see only two things to question here. One, how is Kim going to get consistently satisfactory hitting partners, for that may be the most valuable function that most male coaches perform these days. Two, who does Kim turn to if her forehand goes on the fritz, or if she suddenly has a lot of trouble getting first serves into the box? Those things happen to players, even the best of players. To make a point of saying you’ll never hire a coach again for the rest of your career seems needlessly dramatic.
One thing is pretty certain. Kim is being naïve when she says, “I think with the experience I have, I can easily tell what I’m doing well or badly in training.”
Yes, Kim, but it isn’t what you do in training that counts; it’s what you do—or fail to do—under the strain of competition. And how you get back to doing it when you've lost your way.
Sometimes we look too hard for a single-bullet theory. in this case, I suspect that the coaching controversy as well as Clijsters' temperament went into making her decision.
These facts, though, remain indisputable: Clijsters had a falling out with her coach at the absolute zenith of her career, when it’s hard to imagine anything but money being the source of the rift. Clijsters is making a strong statement that goes against the gestalt of her profession. She’s taking a chance.