The star-studded career of Kim Clijsters ended in the place where it all began today, just not quite in the way she would have wanted.
The popular Belgian, who won as many friends for her bubbly, generous character as for her 'eyeballs-out' tennis and fighting spirit, saw her hopes of a fairytale goodbye dashed by British teenager Laura Robson in the second round of the US Open.
The three-times champion was stunned 7-6 7-6 by an inspired Robson, a final backhand return drifting over the baseline and with it floated away the Belgian's dreams of a fourth title.
"It completely feels like the perfect place to retire," Clijsters told the crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium. "I just wish it wasn't today."
Clijsters led 5-3 in the first set and had three set points at 6-5 but the 18-year-old Briton fought back to win the first tiebreak 7-4 and then, after missing two match points at 6-5, won the second tiebreak 7-5.
After she had lost her first four grand slam finals, it seemed like Clijsters might go down as a perennial runner-up before she finally won the US Open in 2005.
Following a two-year retirement from 2007 to 2009, during which she had her first child, she returned to win a second US Open title in just her third event back.
A third US Open trophy followed in 2010 and Clijsters added the Australian Open title in 2011 to give her four grand slam singles crowns in all.
But it was New York where she enjoyed her finest moments and having made the decision to quit, for good, she chose Flushing Meadows as the place to say goodbye.
"After I won in 2005, every time I came back here I was so inspired by the energy I felt on this court," she said. "I've played some of my best tennis here.
"Since I retired the first time, it's been a great adventure for me and my family. It's all been worth it but I do look forward to the next part.
"For two years I maybe picked up a racquet once. I had my daughter and then my Dad died at the start of 2009 so it was an emotional roller-coaster. When I won here, it was so hard to take it all in."
Robson, who could hardly believe what she had achieved, said Clijsters was a player she had long looked up to.
"I want to say thank you to Kim," the teenager said, after reaching the third round of a grand slam for the first time.
"She's been such a great role model for me for many years. I've grown up watching you and it's been a pleasure to play against you."
Clijsters said she had done everything she could to postpone her retirement for at least one more round.
"Laura played extremely well," she said. "I fought and I gave it my all, it just wasn't good enough at the end of the match.
"But I'm still in the doubles and the mixed," the Belgian laughed.
PLAYERS APPLAUD CLIJSTERS
In her moment of glory, Robson led the praise for a player who is undoubtedly the most popular in the locker room, calling her a role model to young players, while Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur were quick to add their feelings.
"I can't say enough nice things about her," Sharapova said. "She was a tremendous athlete, a really good competitor.
"(But) the nicest thing you saw about her was her commitment to the sport but also wanting to have a great family life, retiring from the sport to have that and then coming back and achieving things in winning the U.S. Opens that she did and the Australian Open."
Defending champion Stosur said "the whole tour" was going to miss having Clijsters around.
"She's been a great player and a great person. She's definitely one of those people that you can look up to and really admire with what she's been able to achieve."
The Belgian admitted that hearing her fellow players talk so warmly about her was something extra special.
"It does something to you when you hear other players talk about me like that," she said.
"Obviously in these two rounds that I've played here, I've played players that I spoke to and they said that I inspired them. That's a great feeling because I was once in that situation as well."
LI RECOVERS FROM LAPSE
Meanwhile, China's Li Na recovered from a mid-match lapse to beat Australian Casey Dellacqua 6-4 6-4 and reach the third round.
The ninth seed, who has never been past the quarter-finals in New York, recovered from 4-0 down in the second set to reach the last 32.
Former French Open champion Li edged the first set but Dellacqua, a left-hander ranked 92nd in the world, blasted a series of winners to move clear in the second.
But Li recovered her poise in time to reel off six straight games and set up a clash with either three-time champion Kim Clijsters of Belgium or Britain's Laura Robson.
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