I read this morning that Kim Clijsters is retiring--effective immediately. She had said, for some time, that this would be her last year but she decided she just could not make it to the end of the season as planned given her nagging injuries and the physical toll the game takes on the body.
Although I have not always been on board with the "I want to get married and have babies" housewife discourse around her decision, I think the retirement is still a huge loss for tennis. And I think her retirement brings up two important issues to consider.
The first is an old one that is allegedly being addressed by the WTA. How absurd has the sport gotten that 23-year olds are retiring early because of persistent injuries and pain? And actually they are not specifically addressing this but rather the length of the season which they see as a contributing factor in injuries and burnout. Unfortunately I see the plans that aim to make some events mandatory as counterintuitive.
I just finished an interesting article by sport sociologist Nancy Theberge about the Canadian sports medicine system that works with elite athletes. One of the shocking discoveries--to me anyway--in Theberge's study of sports medicine practitioners was their top priority: performance--not health. The WTA may present its decision to shorten the season as one of health but it's really about performance. They want the athletes to be able to perform well at the height of the season--the summer months.
Second, Clijster's retirement will, no doubt, have commentators speculating on a possible nomination to the Tennis Hall of Fame. And this is also an issue of performance. Clijsters has one singles Grand Slam title. When Patrick Rafter, winner of two US Opens, retired there was speculation about a potential nomination. Some feel that two is not enough--even if he was (probably still is) a nice guy. Despite Clijster's very consistent performance over her ten years on the tour, including two WTA championships, and her doubles and mixed doubles wins at Wimbledon, many will say she is not Hall-worthy.
I think the performance-based criteria that seems to dominate the recent player category misses a lot. It misses, in the case of Rafter, that fact that he donated half of his prize money from his two US Open wins to the Starlight Children's Foundation. Half. And in the case Clijsters it misses the work, both informal (like hitting balls to the crowd at rain-delayed US Open) and formal, that have made her one of the best ambassadors to the sport. In an era where most professional tennis players are plagued by solipsism and are nearly untouchable because of the layers of entourage surrounding them, Clijsters was accessible and generous.
I think that's more than enough to get you into the Hall of Fame. In fact I think if you don't display enough "good person" characteristics you shouldn't even be considered.
So in five years (when a player becomes eligible) I will start an Induct Kim Clijsters campaign.