Peter Bodo's TennisWorld - The Millstone
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The Millstone 05/07/2007 - 4:04 PM

I certainly hope she finds in marriage the things she didn't get from tennis, or at least things that may one day lead her to look back on a decidedly checkered career and say, "Hey, maybe that wasn't so bad, after all."

Kimmy Well, Steve Tignor has got Rome covered, live, so let's talk about the women. For those of you who were wondering what it would take to get WTA tennis back in the discussion (the WTA goes almost totally off piste at this time of year, leaving the men on the European clay-court circuit to hog all the glory), here's your answer: Champagne Kim Clijster's retirement, which she announced just the other day at her website, www.IhatetennisanddidyouknowI'

As I've already written in my Monday ESPN blog, the news comes not a minute too soon for me. Kim made a career out of being "nice", although I would put it slightly differently: she staked out the high ground of "niceness" quite effectively, but managed - especially near the end of her tedious and uninspired career - to use that apprehension as a handy shield while she kept ducking her head out to make it sound as if having a remunerative career as a global tennis star is a sentence worse than death (which, for me, would be watching an endless tape loop of a typical Kim Clijsters tennis match).

A few people have already written me, asking why I "hate" Champagne Kimmy. I think we've covered this ground pretty well over the past 24 months at this blog, so I'm only giving the short version. First, I don't hate anybody. Kim is a public figure who can - and ought to be -  be judged by her actions and words in the public arena, and on what she brought to her profession. To me, her actions and words often hit a false note, and what she brought to the profession was a solid but dull game and a deeply flawed competitive nature.

And I wouldn't be saying all this if Clijsters had handled this abrupt departure from the game (she's only 23) with something like grace, humility and charm. Instead, she backed out sniping and carping, like some disgruntled peasant milkmaid ruing her lot and making poisonous accusations against the Lady of the Manor - was it Madame Justine?

In fact, there is only one compassionate way to look at Kim's messy, clumsy, poorly orchestrated "retirement" process (this potential "farewell tour" ended up looking more like some rock concert that ends abruptly when everybody starts burning chairs and throwing punches). I suppose that deep down she might feel conflicted about leaving tennis, the game she purports to despise; that would certainly explain why she seems to feel so obliged to keep telling anyone who'll listen (is there anyone like that left?) that she's dying to get married, that she can't wait to have children, that she's so excited about starting her new life. Maybe she's trying to convince herself, along with us. I don't know and I stopped caring a while ago. Cut her some slack? Sure, whatever. . .

My fundamental antipathy to Clijsters goes way back, too. Most of the time, when I see a young player who's destined to be a Grand Slam champ, I'm either deeply impressed or I make a mental note: Keep an eye on this one. . . When I first saw Clijsters, I groaned. I thought: very good athlete, excellent movement for a girl so thickly built, a game with roughly the same degree of sex appeal as curling, but without the wacky bits that make curling fun to watch for 30 seconds. She might have moved me off my position if she had showed some heart and drive, won me over with her competitive character, but as time went on it became apparent to me that she was one of the least inspired players I've ever watched.

Perhaps Kimmy was the prisoner of a game at which she happened to be very good, but which brought out nothing great in her. Maybe there's nothing "great" in her, and that's okay - that would make her like me and some of you. It certainly could explain why she was as eager to "get out" as some lifetime mid-level manager stuck in a whopper of a bureaucracy. But the thing is, she wasn't stuck in a situation anything like that: tired paper shufflers don't get to see Paris, free, or earn over $15 million (just prize-money) in a nine-year career. It's not about the money, of course, except in the ways that it is.

What Kimmy did so routinely, and why I take some pleasure in poking fun at her, is drain the fun, beauty and spontaneity out of the game. She made it seem that tennis really is a just a dumb game featuring two people randomly batting a ball back-and-forth around over a net. I'm not sure she ever made an interesting comment or observation. I suppose it's not entirely fair to hold someone accountable for being terminally dull. But I had the feeling that there was more to it than that - that for Clijsters it was somehow not worth the bother to say what she really thought or felt, or perhaps even to know, herself, what she thought or felt. That it was not worth the effort to address her shortcomings as a player or competitor. That it was too much trouble to cowboy up and accept all the things that come with the territory of being a top player. It was easier just to go through the motions.

But wait, you say, she was always injured! I guess you can take that into account. But it seems that when someone like her promoter pal Bob Verbeeck called, she flung away her crutches like some New Testament leper and rushed to play - after all, the tournament was at home in Belgium, in front of her adoring fans. That was just one of the many things that didn't add up, or did, but to a different portrait than the one Kimmy wanted to see painted of herself. No wonder she ended up despising the artist.

But wait, she was nice.

In professional terms, "nice" is - at best - a value-added component. Evonne Goolagong Cawley was a great player and a charismatic, warm person who loved the game  - and she was "nice", too.  Monica Seles was a Grand Slam warrior princess and a charming ingenue, who also happened to be "nice." Martina Navratilova wasn't "nice" but who cared? She was an awesome champion, honest (if not always with and about herself) to a flaw, and she didn't give a hang about being "nice."

Being "nice" isn't all that different from being good-looking. It's great to be that; it's certainly better than being a grouch, in the same way that being handsome beats being plug-ugly. But being nice is not a virtue; it's a characteristic - just like being comely. The drama of a life is played out between the virtues (some of them, like honesty, are morally based; others, like courage, are psychologically and physically based) not the characteristics, and for higher stakes. If you're merely "nice" you may not experience that drama, or ever understand the finished work. That may be part of Clijsters problem, too. It would certainly explain why she seems so angry and baffled by her life and history in tennis.

Everyone largely writes his or her own story, and even if you love Kim Cljisters you have to admit that the story she wrote became a downer. She's a human buzz kill. She's even managed to make people feel indifferent to what is supposed to be a high and happy point of her adult life. So now I've convinced myself that Clijsters is a figure who deserves some measure of sympathy, for "niceness" might very well have been the millstone hanging around this girl's neck all these years.

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Posted by Rosangel 05/08/2007 at 04:46 PM

Yes, cyandream. I read it a few weeks ago, as mentioned in a brief post I made last night and also several weeks ago in one of our OT threads, and it only adds to things I had been thinking already. I don't know how accurate Michael Mewshaw's research is, but it looked pretty well-sourced to me. I've also read his book about the men's tour, "Short Circuit" - and there he is extremely specific about many of his sources and crooss-checks. I found both books interesting, but the one about the WTA tour much more disturbing and upsetting. In fact, unless someone can disprove some of the things that he asserts, I will never look at the WTA tour in quite the same way again.

Posted by Nancy J 05/08/2007 at 04:51 PM

Pete, I've not written here in awhile, but had to let you know that I feel that your post is a harsh assessment (since I liked Kims game AND I found her a nice person).

A member of the tribe used to write alot about "accounts," and players only having so much in their accounts to give to the game. This is what I think happened with Kim. Her account both mentally and physically is drained. It doesn't matter that she's only 23. There's nothing left.

Its not about her desire to marry, or to have children, or the travelling that takes her away from home. Her body and mind "account" simply ran dry. Why push it this year if its no longer there for Kim? Sure, I would have liked a better ending, but when its gone -- its gone.

Best of luck to Kim.

p.s. Will she be back in a few years after the divorce (you all remember how cynical I am about youngster's marrying)? I won't bet against the possibility! ;)!

Posted by Pete 05/08/2007 at 04:54 PM

Nancy J - it was worth writing just to have you back!

Posted by cyandream 05/08/2007 at 04:58 PM

Rose, I read a passage last night, and was thinking I could have written the same passge with newer names.

I have a guestion with regards to the "girls" of the WTA, I wonder how much of this is because since they are girls, education as well as long term goals aren't as important to the familes? Are they seen as quick money makers with the thought that they can be "married off " later, if I may fall back on old fashioned notions.

OTOH, I see a scary trend emerging on the young men too, now that prize money is so much higher. It seems you have a push for these young boys to make the decision to go pro at relatively younger ages than in the past. Is this just a perception of mind or do others see it too. And if that is the case are we going to have a generation of young men, suffering from some of the same pressures?

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