Critics are being quite harsh about Kim Clijsters's retirement. In this month's TENNIS, which was put to bed long before her announcement, they deride her for then intention to skip the US Open.
But this column from Selena Roberts of the NY Times (kindly sent to me by a reader because I do not have a Times Select subscription) is the harshest condemnation I have seen yet. Roberts suggests that Clijsters is turning her back--negating practically--all the work that pioneers in the sport, like Billie Jean King, Martina Navratlilova, and Evert (note that Evert was not initially on board with this whole equality thing) did in the 70s and 80s.
She writes that Clijsters would make " a terrible bra burner." (Of course all feminists are terrible bra burners given that no bras were ever burned; it's just a (anti?)-feminist urban legend.) Yes, some of us are none too pleased with the married/having children discourse that Clijsters herself is putting forth, but this is not the same situation as the power stockbroker leaving her job for stay-at-home momhood. Women's liberation has not hurt the women's tennis tour, as Roberts suggests it is doing by paying women players big bucks and thus making it economically feasible to retire at an early age.
Clijsters does not plan on secluding herself in her home for the rest of her life. She has always been involved and will continue to be so. Just because she isn't playing tennis does not mean she is dropping out of the public sphere to change diapers, make meals, and organize play dates.
The idea that people--including Roberts--do not believe the injuries and the perpetual wear and tear on the body are legitimate reasons to retire goes to how deeply the idea of "no pain, no gain" has been ingrained in our culture. Roberts acknowledges that the idea of health and happiness over long-term injury seems right, but she just can't excuse Clijsters for leaving the game high and dry--putting women's tennis as a whole at risk because, she contends, there will be a loss of rivalries.
Clijsters has been giving to the game for a long time--longer than most players who will or have played twice as long as her. And I believe she will continue to do so.
She alone is not responsible for making sure the game continues. If injuries and burnout are the reason women are retiring "early" then maybe the tour needs to take a look at what is going on.
Besides, Roberts's contentions are way off base. Because, one, most players are not retiring in their early 20s--even the ones who have never made it to number one in the world or won a slam. Look at Rennae Stubbs who is in her 30s. Davenport retired after turning 30, Capriati is now 31--and though she hasn't officially retired it seems unlikely she will return. And second, there are plenty of young women who are looking to take Clijsters's spot. There are many rivalries in the making and though we will miss Kim Clijsters, I am excited to see what becomes of players like Jankovic, Safina, Vaidisova, and others.