Clijsters becomes latest young victim of the tennis rat race

AS ANOTHER female tennis player bows out in the flush of her youth, Kim Clijsters has joined a far from exclusive band of those whose careers have been defined by premature farewells. It is not a new phenomenon, even if the tennis environment has become a notoriously more hectic rat-run of tour event after exhausting tour event.

Clijsters has grabbed the chance to retire on her own terms, before her physical condition is irretrievably damaged by the demands of top-level tennis. Few can blame her, but it is possible to feel regret that this young, fit woman has reached the point where she aches when she gets out of bed in the morning.

It is, she says, a consequence of the unrealistic demands placed on tennis stars, and her haste in bringing the curtain down on her career stems from a desire to step outside this exacting existence. It has claimed a raft of victims, from Tracy Austin to Martina Hingis, from Andrea Jaeger to Jennifer Capriati.

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Even Venus Williams can be portrayed as having been abused by a sport she conquered. When just 20 years old, and having freshly lifted the US Open title, there were suggestions she might retire from the sport having become fed up with the circuit treadmill. She wanted to concentrate on other pursuits such as fashion, something which was impossible in the intense world she has inhabited since the age of ten. It was at this tender age that she was the focus of a major article in Sports Illustrated. In this respect she had triumphed over Austin and Capriati, cover stars of the magazine when just 13 years old.

Too much, too young is a phrase heard in women's tennis more than anywhere else in sport, and Williams' exposure to the cynical realm of professional sport when still a child caused Dennis Ralston, a former Wimbledon finalist, to splutter: "She's ten years old and agents are talking to her? What's happened to our sport?"

Gabriela Sabatini was a pin-up for the early Nineties but on her retirement in her mid- twenties said she had lost the desire to play tennis, even for fun. "I started playing at six and it was just tennis every day from then on," she recalled. "Tennis is a lonely sport, most of the time you are travelling on your own."

Little has changed in the decade since Sabatini stepped away to pursue other ventures. Clijsters, too, makes a point about the thudding predictability of life on the women's tennis tour. "No more travelling," she writes in her own website diary with barely disguised glee. "No more airplanes in and out. No more gossip or lies in the newspapers. No more jet-lag and no more packing and unpacking."

Clijsters has cancelled a farewell tour that had initially planned to take in both the French Open and Wimbledon. With a wedding planned for July it was, she explained, harder to keep her focus on a game she knew she had already fallen out of love with. Aged 24, it is, on the face of it, a distressingly young age to fall prey to disillusionment, although the women's tennis circuit has an appalling record in breaking the spirit - and sometimes bodies - of precious talents.

In actual fact 24 is a comparatively venerable age to have called it quits. Her reasons perhaps lack the colour of some of her predecessors. Clijsters hopes to concentrate on starting a family, walking her dogs and cooking. Capriati, it is recalled, temporarily abandoned the game to indulge in getting high on narcotics in cheap motels. There then followed almost a decade in the wilderness.

Jaeger walked away from tennis when she was just 19 having already reached No2 in the world. A professional at 14, non-stop tennis saw her shoulder almost flake from its socket. Intriguingly, she is now an Anglican Dominican nun. Austin became the youngest ever US Open champion aged just 16, but the assumption that she was about to dominate the women's sport for years to come was trashed by physical deterioration. A spate of back injuries meant that at 20 she had already pushed her body limits too far. Retirement was her only option, and she admitted how unhappy the constant pain and pressures of the sport had made her.

Not all have remained on the sidelines. Often, a spell away from the game can recharge batteries and prepare the way for a comeback that might eclipse their first era. Capriati proved there is a way back when she won the French Open in 2001 and the Australian Open in 2001 and 2002.

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Hingis, who made a comeback last year, has yet to reach the heights of her breakthrough years, but has at least reclaimed her enthusiasm. Perhaps Clijsters will one day pine for the very same activities which presently have made her so weary. But the shame for women's tennis is that it has come to this yet again.

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