Kim's in the kitchen
January 13, 2007
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They're young, glamorous jet-setters paid Bill Gates rates for playing a game that does not involve high-speed collisions, frostbite or even body contact. Who wouldn't want the life of a professional tennis superstar?
The affable Belgian formerly known as "Aussie Kim" in this country is zipping up her racquet bag. Finding the grass greener on the front lawn than at Wimbledon, she's giving the game and its itinerant life away at the end of this year to settle down and become a housewife.
She'll cook, walk her three dogs and, if all goes to plan, have babies. In July, she will marry Brian Lynch, an American basketballer based in the land of Jean Claude van Damme, chocolate and Stella Artois.
While millions envy the luxurious lot of the tennis champ, Kim envies the humdrum, white-picket fence existence of millions, to the extent that when she ends her highly successful tennis career,if she's not a desperate housewife at the age of 24, one could say she's desperately seeking domesticity.
Clijsters announced she would retire at the end of 2007 after she broke her grand slam duck in the 2005 US Open, and she has not deviated from the plan since. A monster year was 2005 she won in New York, broke up with first fiance Lleyton Hewitt, hooked up with Lynch and established her two-year exit strategy from tennis.
Now, the finish line is within sight, and Clijsters is lunging at the tape, keen to shine in her sporting twilight, which, unusually, also is her prime. "I'm kind of more motivated," she said. "I felt like in December this year, I worked harder than I've ever worked
because, you know, 'OK this is the last time you have to do it'."
Hence, barring an unlikely re-think, this will be her finale at Melbourne Park, the venue where she's spent so many hours perhaps as many sitting in the Hewitt entourage as on court and where she has "so many great memories".
Given her age, the millions she'll forfeit, not to mention the grand slams she'll miss, it's natural to wonder whether Clijsters is really serious about this retirement business. She knows how unfathomable it looks. On the subject of her exit, I ask: "Do people think that you're . . " Clijsters finishes the question "Bullshitting, when I say that?"
"But I'm not," she answers. "This is something that I'm very serious about
I just can't wait to start the life after tennis."
Cooking, the dishes and renovations aside, that post-tennis life will consist of? "There's a lot of things that I want to do. I definitely want to stay involved in tennis
My sister organises sports camps for children in Belgium and that's something that I've always enjoyed doing. I've always enjoyed working with kids as well."
This interest in other people's kids leaves one in no doubt that Kim is keen on procreation. "Definitely, I would love to," she said, not a hint of angst or hesitation. "You know, the dogs will maybe move out of the house a little bit when we start to have children. But, definitely, both Brian and I would love to start a family, but like I said, I still want to play tennis this year. That's still on my mind first."
Tennis still in her head, yet Clijsters finds it increasingly wrenching to leave the front gate of her home in Bree, which she shares with Brian, who plays for a Bree team in Belgium's premier basketball competition. "I mean, there was nothing harder than packing my bags before I came here and leaving. It's hard. I'm going to be away from it (home) for about a month. It's something I never really had. I never really minded leaving or travelling, and over the last few years, you became more of a housewife, I guess. That's something I enjoy a lot more now."
As thousands of imprisoned mothers sigh, look at the laundry and wonder if Kimmy's lost her marbles, Clijsters can explain why she wishes to spend the rest of her 20s making a home rather than millions wielding a racquet. And, when one considers her life story she started playing at six, touring at 12, is the daughter of a well-known professional soccer player (dad Leo was Belgian player of the year in 1988) and a top gymnast, Els the decision becomes comprehensible.
The relentless grind of the WTA tour is all she's known for a dozen years, making home her place of peace and rest. "You know, tennis I've been doing it since I was six and I've been travelling since I was 12
tennis has been part of my life every day. I've never ever really had the chance to be at home and make your home cosy and make it like a home. I always felt like going back to Belgium was kind of like a break, then I'd be off to another tournament."
Clijsters doesn't enjoy flying, either, and as a member of the airlines' white-knuckle club, she drives to European tournaments if at all possible. So she will not miss the constant travel.
I put it to Clijsters that, once gone, she might miss the game, and could mount a comeback Martina Hingis-style a couple of years from now. She admits the possibility, albeit a remote one. "I never say never, you never know what can happen in life, but that's just life, that (retiring) is what I feel like very strongly at the moment."
Amelie Mauresmo didn't win her first slam until she was 26½. Clijsters has only one that 2005 US Open on her resume, having been runner-up four times and a semi-finalist on a further three occasions.
If Clijsters removed the grand slam gorilla from her back in 2005, one wondered whether she would be pulling up stumps if she hadn't won a slam. "Yes," she said, emphatic that winning a slam had no bearing on the decision. "Obviously the story would have been a lot different, but if I still had all those injuries, yes, then I could have stopped even sooner. I've never been that focused on winning this or that, or getting to No. 1. I think if you're healthy and if you're playing well, those are the first two things you have to try to be almost 100 per cent at.
"If you have, then I think the rest comes automatically, then you play well, then you're able to last through grand slams and that something that's been lacking me last year and the last two years."
Her 2006 wasn't as successful as the 2005 peak, though she still managed semi-finals in three of the four grand slam tournaments. An ankle sprain in her Australian Open semi-final (she was defeated by Mauresmo) dogged her for a while, then she badly hurt her wrist in Montreal on the eve of the US Open, preventing a title defence and prompting her to consider immediate retirement.
Clijsters is polite whenever the subject of Hewitt is raised, as it must be around each Australian Open. Mostly, she answers with a dead bat, or offers encouraging words about her former boyfriend's prospects. She acknowledged, however, that both parties have benefited from their parting.
"It's amazing how things can change. I feel so much more mature now than I was then, not just on the tennis court, but personal life as well and I felt like I'm a lot more at ease where I'm at at my life. It's very comfortable and very happy. It's only, I think, gone better for both of us."
Clijsters comes to Melbourne Park without a coach. "To me, like it's a lot more important to have a few good people around me I can trust
my sister's flying in on Tuesday morning, my cousin is coming over," she says.
Clijsters intends to retain Australian friendships forged when she was Aussie Kim. "I mean, friends to me are really important
like family is
that's a lot more important to me than winning tournaments."