In the early 2000’s, Kim Clijsters was seen as one of the future stars in the women’s tennis tour. The young tennis player from Belgium had been on a steady rise since she turned professional in 1997.
Indeed, 2003 is still considered by many as her finest year in the sport. This is despite the fact that she did not win a single Grand Slam title that year.
Yet her consistent showings saw her dominate the rankings for most of the year. And her win in the year-ending WTA Tour Championship also saw her notch up a unique first in women’s tennis history.
With the title win, she became the first woman in the history of the sport to win USD 4 million in a season. Yes, the girl from Belgium ended the year with 4 million dollars in prize money.
With 18 years having passed since the day, let us now look back at what was a big achievement for Kim Clijsters.
The 2003 season had already been wonderful for Clijsters. She competed in 21 singles events and reached at least the semi-finals in 20 of those. And she made the finals in 15 of those tournaments, winning 9 of them.
She ended the year with a single’s record of 90 wins and 12 losses. This made her the first woman since Martina Navratilova in 1982 to get 90 wins in a season. She was also the first since Chris Evert in 1974 to play 100 matches in a season.
As if that wasn’t enough, Clijsters also actively took part in the double’s tour. Between singles and doubles matches, she actually played a total of 170 matches.
Her doubles partnership with Japanese player Ai Sugiyama was also a successful one. They took part in 13 events and won 7 titles.
There were also two notable rivalries Clijsters was part of in that year. She frequently locked horns with compatriot Justin Henin through 2003; they faced off in 8 matches, 6 of which were tournament finals.
In the doubles bracket, Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suarez faced Clijsters and Sugiyama on five different finals; Clijsters and Sugiyama took part in 10 finals that year.
In the midst of all this, you’re probably wondering why no mention was made of her Grand Slam record. Well, that’s because she didn’t win any Grand Slams that year.
She made the finals of both the French Open and the US Open. However, on both occasions, she lost out to compatriot Henin.
Despite the lack of Grand Slam success, Clijsters would become the World No. 1 ranked player in both singles and doubles. She was also only the fifth player to be ranked #1 in singles and doubles at the same time.
The chance to win 4 million dollars, however, came only at the end of the year. Clijsters entered the WTA Tour Championships as one of the favourites to win the whole thing.
The tournament saw 8 players divided into two groups of 4. The top 2 players from each group made the semis, with the winners of those matches contesting the final.
Kim Clijsters was placed in the Red Group alongside Amelie Mauresmo, Elena Dementieva and Chanda Rubin. And she would go unbeaten through the course of the group stages.
Indeed, in the course of the three matches, she only dropped one set: the first one in her tournament’s opening game against Mauresmo. She saw off Dementieva 6-4, 6-4 and Rubin 6-2, 6-2.
In the semi-final, she was drawn against Jennifer Cipriati. This match turned out to be a bit more competitive, mainly because the American actually won the first set.
It was the first set Clijsters had dropped since the opening game. But she rebounded emphatically, winning the next two sets to take the match. Her third set win, it must be noted, was a bagel i.e. it ended 6-0.
Many were expecting an all-Belgian final between Clijsters and Henin. However, the Belgian would lose a hard-fought semi-final to Mauresmo. And thus the stage was set.
However, any hopes of a competitive final ended when Clijsters took the first set 6-2. The second set saw her claim another bagel, and with it the WTA Tour Championship.
The earnings from the tournament were USD 1,000,030 and this made Clijsters the first women’s tennis player to pocket USD 4 million in winnings.
The following seasons, however, were marred by injury troubles for Clijsters. She was unable to build on the momentum she generated in 2003 – despite winning her maiden Grand Slam title at the US Open in 2004.
Persistent injury issues led to long spells off the court, and even led to her 2007 retirement. That retirement lasted 2 years, before a four-year comeback beginning in 2009.
Amazingly, she was able to become the world number 1 during her first season back on the tour. Even more amazingly, she made a third comeback in the 2020-21 season and is still an active player aged 38.