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Clijsters' humility a rare asset
Superstar athletes are not average people. They're different from you and me. Higher levels of drive and determination; bigger egos; greater feelings of self worth and an acceptance that there will be pain, sacrifice and hardship on the path that will lead them to their goals.
Almost all of the above applied to Kim Clijsters, who bowed out of professional tennis at the US Open this week when she lost in the second round to British teenager Laura Robson. Except, perhaps, the ego.
For a high achiever — four Grand Slam singles titles puts her firmly in that category — Clijsters has always seemed devoid of attitude, a person quite able to talk with kings and never lose the common touch, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling who wrote about another Kim.
This is why Clijsters' final departure is being greeted with so many accolades and so much regret.
"I'm really going to miss her," Billie Jean King told BBC Radio Five. "I loved watching her play. Everyone loved watching her play. She touches your heart and you wanted her to do well. She's just that kind of person, not everyone can do that. She brings out the best in everyone."
Maria Sharapova was equally complimentary. "She was always so focused and determined. One of the best athletes in the women's game and just a really great person; very humble, at the end of the day a down-to-earth person who reflected on life in a very good way."
Robson is one of several of the younger group of players who have been surprised to find a star so accessible. "Kim's always been incredibly nice to be around," she said.
Clijsters got a little misty-eyed when some of these thoughts were relayed to her. "I mean, it does something to you when you hear other players talk about me like that. I've played players here (teenager Victoria Duval and Robson) in the first two rounds that I spoke to and they said I inspired them. That's a great feeling because I was once in that situation as well."
The disarming charm; the lack of self importance is not unique to Clijsters, but it is rare. In the men's game, Stefan Edberg, the elegant Swede who won six Grand Slams, including two at Wimbledon and two at the US Open, comes closest to Clijsters in the way he moved through the game, ever gracious, ever humble.
There was a scene in the snow outside the Stadium in Gothenberg after a Davis Cup tie against the US when Jonas Svensson was playing for Sweden. It was the year after Edberg retired and he had been attending the matches. A young fan wanted to have a photo taken of himself with Svensson and, looking around, asked the first person he saw to take it for him. The person happened to be Edberg, a far greater star than Svensson would ever be. But the boy didn't seem to realize that and posed happily while Stefan, equally happily, clicked away and then disappeared quietly into the night.
It is the sort of thing you could imagine happening with Kim. Taking the world as she finds it; doing the natural things like marrying and having a child and becoming a working mom. Radiating happiness — a priceless asset which is why all the players who tried, and frequently failed, to beat her will miss her so.
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