Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kim Clijsters: working mother

by Gracie Remington

The New York Times has an interesting article on resurgent tennis star Kim Clijsters in today's newspaper, documenting the Belgian tennis player's return to tennis after time spent away from the sport starting a family. Clijsters, who will face Serena Williams in the semifinals of the US Open after defeating 18th-seeded Li Na of China, retired from tennis in 2007 at the age of 24. She had turned professional at the age of 14 and was ranked number 1 in the world six years later, but the constant grind of the professional tennis circuit drove her to explore other interests. "I had other things in my mind that I wanted to achieve as a woman and as a person," she told the Times. She put down her racket, married American basketballer Brian Lynch, and gave birth to her first child, a daughter, in February of last year. Instead of furthering her distance from tennis, however, parenting only inspired her to return to the court. She returned to the sport last winter, realizing that having a family allowed her to balance work and personal spaces in a more efficient, well-rounded manner.

Clijsters' return to tennis is laudable in and of itself, especially given the nonstop travel and play inherent in the professional tennis circuit. That she has found the time, energy, and passion to return to the sport that she loves in a healthy way that allows her to maintain her pre-established personal life is fantastic, especially as many other female athletes struggle to come to terms with the seemingly opposed forces of work and family. Many of the other tennis players interviewed for the Times article expressed their total exhaustion with the tour and their lack of a personal life, highlighting the drawbacks of playing on the professional level. Ana Ivanovic, a former number 1 player who was eliminated during the first round of the Open, expressed her intention to "completely switch off," explaining that she "hadn't had a proper holiday in years." Despite her 21 years, she said she felt much older, "like 25, maybe," she laughed. Dinara Safina, the current female number 1, summarized her life as "just playing, playing, playing, playing, playing" after being eliminated in the third round. Annika Sorenstam, the former professional golfer, has enthusiastically been watching Clijsters play at the Open, but does not have similar plans to return to the game. Her husband stated that "We've actually joked about the fact that she doesn't miss tournament golf at all. It's the last thing on her mind."

Professional female athletes seem to walk a fine line between career and family, as the time needed for professional development always seems to outweigh personal matters. This subject is certainly undiscussed (and somewhat verboten) in the world of men's athletics, where fatherhood can be enjoyed in conjunction with a career in professional athletics. What is perhaps most interesting about the Times' profile of Clijsters is Roger Federer's discussion of her return to tennis. Federer, one of the best male tennis players of all time and a father to newborn twins, was quoted as saying: "It's nice that she hasn't lost the love for the game. Going out of the game at, what was it, 23? That's, for me, just shocking. I don't understand how you do that. Being a woman, obviously you don't want to wait till you're 35 to have kids. But it's nice to see her back in the game."

The fact that Clijsters' decision to end her professional career and start a family is "shocking" to a male tennis player comes as no surprise; Federer has been able to start a family with very little detriment to his professional career, and seems intent on continuing to play for as long as he can, regardless of the size of his family. But it necessitates a serious discussion about the nature of women's athletics and the ways in which an athletic career and having a family can be seen as something other than mutually exclusive for female athletes.

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