I love Kim Clijsters. I am not afraid to proclaim it. When she was away last year with injuries, the game just wasn't the same. I love her intensity. I love her splits (though I gasp every time she does one, afraid she will pull or strain something). And I love her spirit. She is undoubtedly the nicest player on the tour. Since coming back from injury she has frequently discussed how much more she enjoys the sport and appreciates the opportunity to play.
But questions have been asked (by those pesky sports reporters who never to cease to amaze me with the idiotic questions they ask) if Clijsters is too nice to win a major. She has reached 4 finals and lost them all. So she was asked that question again today (or in an interview that was aired today) and she pointed out that niceness is clearly not a factor in winning Grand Slams because just look at Roger Federer--the nicest guy on the tour who is rolling through most players, all the while smiling and shaking hands and being a generally nice person.
It was a good answer. But the better one (and feel free to use this one, Kim) is that something is very wrong in sports when the idea that you have to be not nice (mean even? conniving?) to win. Has "competitive" become a synonym for mean? If so, then we need to seriously reevaluate the values that are allegedly being learned through sports. This is of particular interest to my own work on the "empowerment" that girls get from playing sports. Sports programs for youth frequently tout this along with skills such as teamwork, friendship, sportsmanship as valuable life skills children gain from sports. But apparently this is only rhetoric if we, as a society, not only believe that you have be a little not nice, but support the athletes who are.
Kim Clijsters is without a Grand Slam title not because she is too nice. Maybe she gets nervous in finals--like many athletes regardless of where they fall on the nice scale. I, personally, will be crushed if she does not win this US Open. But if she never wins a grand slam, I still think she should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. She is one of the best ambassadors of tennis (and sports in general I would argue) and that should count not just "for something" but for a lot. If we really believe (and I certainly do) that sports do teach its participants (of all ages) valuable life skills and work ethics then we cannot and should not so easily separate the person from the performance.