NEW YORK: Kim Clijsters’ singles career ended where she wanted it to, just not the way she hoped.
The four-time Grand Slam champion lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) to 18-year-old Laura Robson of Britain in the second round of the U.S. Open on Wednesday, and will head into retirement after she finishes playing in doubles at Flushing Meadows.
Clijsters walked away from the sport once before, in May 2007, then returned after a 2˝-year hiatus. But now 29 and a mother, the Belgian insisted this season that she means it this time, and decided the U.S. Open — and its hard courts that she conquered on the way to three championships — would be her final tournament.
“It’s the place that has inspired me so much to do well and to do great things. It’s hard to explain sometimes why,” Clijsters said in an on-court interview, her face flushed and her eyes welling with tears.
“This completely feels like the perfect place to retire,” Clijsters told the spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium, many of whom rose to shower her with a standing ovation. “I just wish it wasn’t today.”
The loss Wednesday ended Clijsters’ 22-match winning streak in New York, encompassing titles in 2005, 2009 and 2010, plus Monday’s first-round victory.
She missed the hard-court major in 2004, 2006-08 and last year, thanks to a combination of injuries and the time she took off while starting a family.
Her previous defeat at Flushing Meadows came against Belgian rival Justine Henin on Sept. 6, 2003, in the tournament final. Robson was 9 at the time.
Clijsters finished with a career singles record of 523-127 (a winning percentage of .805) and 41 titles, including her last major trophy at the 2011 Australian Open. She spent a total of 20 weeks ranked No. 1, as recently as February 2011.
Ranked 89th, and with only one prior victory over a top-25 player, Robson has been viewed — particularly back home in Britain — as an up-and-coming player whose smooth left-handed strokes would carry her far.
But she had never produced the kind of grit and court-covering athleticism that carried her past the 23rd-seeded Clijsters. And until now, Robson never had won more than one match in a Grand Slam tournament; her claim to fame had been teaming for a silver medal in mixed doubles at the London Olympics with Andy Murray, who played his second-round U.S. Open match Wednesday night.
Clijsters was the only seeded woman who lost during the afternoon session of Day 3, when the winners included No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, defending champion Sam Stosur, 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and 2011 French Open champion Li Na.
Joining Robson with a surprise victory was American wild-card entry Mallory Burdette, the NCAA runner-up who reached the third round in her Grand Slam debut by eliminating 69th-ranked Lucie Hradecka 6-2, 6-4.
Burdette next faces four-time major champion Maria Sharapova, a 6-0, 6-1 winner over 78th-ranked Lourdes Dominguez Lino of Spain.
Earlier on Ashe, the highest-ranked American man, John Isner beat Xavier Malisse 6-3, 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (9) in the first round.