31 August, 2012

Watching Them Go

Which is more heartbreaking, watching someone waste away to a shadow of their former selves before finally succumbing; or to have them gone suddenly, unexpectedly, in a flash?  Sudden loss serves up grief with a shock chaser; forcing you to stop abruptly, feel intensely, process immediately.  Extended farewells on the other hand, can be draining, threatening to blot out the memory of everything that came prior.  When the farewell drags on there's a desire to celebrate what once was, but simultaneously, an impetus to avert your eyes from the slow motion car crash that progresses in increasingly gruesome detail.

Ladies and gentlemen, the farewells of Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters in black and white.

Let's dispense with pretense for a second.  By the time it finally, officially happened, we were glad to see Kim Clijsters hang it up.  We're not "haters," disgruntled Justine Henin fans or heartless bastards.  To tell the truth, we were just sick to death of watching Clijsters' torturous death march to the end of her career.  The Belgian is a great champion, a World No. 1, a four-time major winner and from everything we hear (we've never graced her presence) a class act if ever there were one.  Not to mention, her game has always been fun to watch.  At her best, her nimble mobility rivaled that of Jelena Jankovic, while her unbridled power allowed her to stand shoulder to shoulder with the WTA glamazons and be much more than cannon fodder.  Clijsters' resume makes her a slam dunk Hall-of-Famer in her own right.

Disclaimers aside, Clijsters has been retiring since she unretired.  She was quick to point to the London Olympics as her goal and probably the signpost whereupon reaching, she would hang it up.  It was initially inspiring to see her return to the tour as a mother; winning the 2009 US Open as if she'd never really left, then adding more majors to her tally,but let's be honest, it's been a slog of late.  When she won the Australian Open just 20 months ago, it looked as if Clijsters would be recast forever as a tennis Artemis, holding her daughter in one arm and her weapon of choice, a Babolat, in the other; strong and beautiful all the way to the end.  Unfortunately, we all know how the story played out; injuries and inconsistency took hold.  After that brilliant run in Australia 20 months ago, reaching the final in Sydney and taking the Australian Open title, Clijsters went just 12-6 the rest of 2011.  Injuries to her ankle, foot, abdominals plus a plan to play a limited schedule to begin with meant Clijsters' victory lap played out in dispiriting fits and starts.  She briefly returned to No. 1 in early 2011, but 2012 was, for lack of a better word, sad.  At one point, her ranking fell clear out of the Top 50.  She reached just three semifinals this year, twice at that stage she withdrew, while the third time she was a beaten by current World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in three uneven sets.  The Olympics which she had dreamed of, ended with a straight-sets loss to Sharapova.  The US Open, her final event, would end with a 7-6, 7-6 loss to Laura Robson, a heralded young Brit, but one who on paper, Clijsters should have dispatched.

Let's keep it simple: not playing a regular schedule breeds inconsistent results.  The Serena Williams-types who can take extended layoffs and come back worldbeaters are few and far between.  Clijsters isn't one of them.  Sometimes she chose not to play, sometimes her aching body chose for her, but as the march toward the end progressed, more and more we found ourselves saying "Are we there yet?"  It's unfortunate, but it's been a while since Clijsters' presence in a draw seemed...of consequence.  Kim Clijsters is officially out the door, but the contender fans knew and loved, she's already been gone for a while.

Andy Roddick, on the other hand, had different expectations.  He hadn't won a major since 2003, though in fairness to him, what men have?  That aside, Roddick's been quite consistent at his level. He won what will likely be his last tournament a bit over a month ago, once and for all reclaiming his mojo from Gilles Muller in the BB&T Atlanta Open final.  That title run was his second this summer.  After crashing out of Queens Club in the first round, Roddick righted himself with a title on the grass of Eastbourne the week before Wimbledon.  While his Wimbledon wasn't exactly the stuff of legends this year (he fell in the third round), losing to David Ferrer at a major isn't something to hang your head over.  Neither was his career.

In a period obsessed with superlatives of the type regularly associated with Roger Federer, Andy Roddick's career is often unfairly dismissed.  The man was a World No. 1 who was ranked among the ATP top ten for eight consecutive years, he won a major (and reached five major finals), won five Masters titles and led the US to a Davis Cup title.  He wasn't Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, but as the record stands today, Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Murray are all just about even for next best career of this era.

With his announcement yesterday that this US Open would be his final tournament, Roddick ripped off the bandage.  There would be no farewell tour beyond what we've already seen.  Another match, versus Bernard Tomic tonight; maybe another small handful afterward, but that's it, the end.  When he mentioned in the presser, "I don't know that I've ever been someone who's interested in existing on tour."  Two things came to mind, one his oft-reported retort to a sponsor seeking a performance guarantee that when he dropped out of the Top 15 he'd retire and also, Clijsters.

Roddick chose to go out playing something approximating his best tennis, still winning titles, but knowing that without the will or physical health to put the hard yards into tennis anymore, he couldn't compete at the highest level, so why compete at all.  Clijsters chose a farewell tour, each performance looking less and less like a true competitor and more like a retiree popping into the office to visit old colleagues, chatting away, while everyone else is on deadline, trying to build their own careers.

As we write this, we know that these feelings are fleeting though.  At some point, probably 2017, up the road in Newport, we'll look at Roddick and Clijsters through a different set of eyes, ones not cloud by their waning moments.  We'll remember Roddick in his prime on the lawns of Wimbledon, battling valiantly for the title against the greatest player of his era.  We'll remember Clijsters as a triple US Open champion, a hardcourt specialist perhaps, but one who helped take the physicality of the game to new levels.  With the passage of time, we won't remember how they left, just what they did when they were here.

Mortality is a condition of life.  We forget about it, stash it in the darkest corners of our minds, but it's always there, looming, oft silent, but always there.  It's as true in the big picture sense as it is in terms of tennis careers.  Two of our greats are moving on, may their tennis lives rest in peace.


  1. Ok, first, install Disqus... :)

    This was a great article - though it seems like your assessment of Clijsters was a bit dramatic. I don't know the full back-story, obviously, but if she won an Open and was ranked 1st (even briefly) in 2011, then still giving it a go in 2012 doesn't seem THAT crazy? She proved she can do comebacks before, so giving her 3 strikes to do it again was something she seems to have earned?

    Roddick... played the best loss that I ever watched (in my limited Tennis viewing), and I'll always remember him for it. That, and... I think he deserves credit in the rankings for Brooklyn Decker. The category may not have a name, but you know for sure every tennis player is very aware whatever it is, he's winning it :)

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