Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1997-2012
*Titles: 41 (per WTA website)
Major titles: 4 (2005, 2009, 2010 US Open; 2011 Australian Open)*
Few players have ever brought so much raw, daredevil, athletic brio to the court as Clijsters. The daughter of a gymnast and a professional soccer player, she was a powerful ball-striker with an acrobatic streak that made us wince in awe every time she contorted herself into a full split while chasing down a forehand.
Clijsters arrived on tour in her mid-teens fully formed and, along with her countrywoman Justine Henin, quickly set about putting Belgium on the tennis map. In 1999, a few weeks after her 16th birthday, she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in her Grand Slam debut. But it was what happened at her next major, at the US Open two months later, that provided a more accurate forecast of what the future held for Clijsters. Up 5-3 in the third set over her fellow 17-year-old Serena Williams, she lost the last four games and the match. Serena would go on to win the first of her 23 majors the following weekend; it would be six years before Clijsters won her first.
But after losing her first four major finals, Clijsters won her last four, including three at the US Open. And despite laboring in the shadows of Henin and the Williams sisters, she would win 41 titles and spend 20 weeks at No. 1 between 2003 and 2011. Rather than cave to the world’s best, she learned from them.
“The level that [the Williams sisters] reached made me go back to the gym to try to get fitter and stronger,” Clijsters told the BBC in 2017.
Clijsters’ induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2016 was a popular choice. The most important part of her legacy may not have been what she did on the court, but who she was off it. To say an athlete is “nice” can be a backhanded compliment, and maybe 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, few players were as well-liked by her tour-mates, both men and women. Clijsters wasn’t the best of her era, but she did show that, with a little time and work, nice tennis players can finish first.
Defining Moment: Clijsters' natural athleticism was never more stunning than at the 2009 US Open. In just her third tournament since coming out of retirement, she became the first mother since 1980 to win a major title. **
Watch: Kim Clijsters reflects on her Hall of Fame career