The four-time Grand Slam champion lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) to 18-year-old Laura Robson of Britain 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.
Clijsters walked away from the sport once before, in May 2007, then returned after a 2 1/2-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 in an on-court interview, her face flushed and her eyes welling with tears.
"This completely feels like the perfect place to retire," Clijsters told the spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium, many of whom rose to shower her with a standing ovation. "I just wish it wasn't today."
The loss Wednesday 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. "It's all been worth it. But I do look forward to the next part of my life coming up."
Her previous defeat at Flushing Meadows came against Belgian rival Justine Henin on Sept. 6, 2003, in the tournament final. Robson was 9 at the time.
This did have the feel, in some ways, of a changing of the guard.
Ranked 89th, and with only one prior victory over a top-25 player, Robson has been viewed — particularly back home in Britain — as an up-and-coming player whose smooth left-handed strokes would carry her far.
But she had never produced the kind of grit and court-covering athleticism that carried her past Clijsters. And until now, Robson never had won more than one match in a Grand Slam tournament.
She knows, though, how much Clijsters means to the game, not only as a superb player but as someone who by all accounts is universally liked — by fans, tennis officials and even opponents.
When the contest ended with Clijsters sailing a backhand return long, allowing Robson to convert her third match point, they met at the net. Clijsters began to extend her arm for the customary handshake, and Robson pulled her in for a hug.
"I want to thank Kim," Robson told the crowd moments later, "for being such a great role model to me for so many years."