Kim Clijsters' singles career ended where she wanted it to, just not the way she hoped.
The four-time Grand Slam champion lost 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) to 18-year-old Laura Robson of Britain in the second round of the U.S. Open on Wednesday, and will head into retirement after she finishes playing in doubles at Flushing Meadows.
Clijsters walked away from the sport once before, in May 2007, then returned after a 2 1/2-year hiatus. But now 29 and a mother, the Belgian insisted this season that she means it this time, and decided the U.S. Open - and its hard courts that she conquered on the way to three championships - would be her final tournament.
"It's the place that has inspired me so much to do well and to do great things. It's hard to explain sometimes why," Clijsters said in an on-court interview, her face flushed and her eyes welling with tears.
"This completely feels like the perfect place to retire," Clijsters told the spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium, many of whom rose to shower her with a standing ovation. "I just wish it wasn't today."
The loss Wednesday ended Clijsters' 22-match winning streak in New York, encompassing titles in 2005, 2009 and 2010, plus Monday's first-round victory.
She missed the hard-court major in 2004, 2006-08 and last year, thanks to a combination of injuries and the time she took off while starting a family. Her daughter, Jada, was born in February 2008. By August 2009, Clijsters was back on tour; unseeded and unranked, because she only played in two previous tournaments during her comeback, she won that year's U.S. Open.
"Since I retired the first time, it's been a great adventure for my team and my family," said Clijsters, who was 28-0 against players ranked outside the top 10 at the U.S. Open before Wednesday. "It's all been worth it. But I do look forward to the next part of my life coming up."
Her previous defeat at Flushing Meadows came against Belgian rival Justine Henin on Sept. 6, 2003, in the tournament final. Robson was 9 at the time.
This did have the feel, in some ways, of a changing of the guard.
Clijsters finished with a career singles record of 523-127 (a winning percentage of .805) and 41 titles, including her last major trophy at the 2011 Australian Open. She spent a total of 20 weeks ranked No. 1, as recently as February 2011.
Ranked 89th, and with only one prior victory over a top-25 player, Robson has been viewed - particularly back home in Britain - as an up-and-coming player whose smooth left-handed strokes would carry her far.
But she had never produced the kind of grit and court-covering athleticism that carried her past the 23rd-seeded Clijsters. And until now, Robson never had won more than one match in a Grand Slam tournament; her claim to fame had been teaming for a silver medal in mixed doubles at the London Olympics with Andy Murray, who played his second-round U.S. Open match Wednesday night.
Robson knows, though, how much Clijsters means to the game, not only as a superb player but as someone who by all accounts is universally liked - by fans, tennis officials and even opponents.
"She's always been someone that I've looked up to since I started on the tour. She's always been incredibly nice to be around," Robson said. "I think we're all going to miss her."
When the contest ended with Clijsters sailing a backhand return long, allowing Robson to convert her third match point, they met at the net. Clijsters began to extend her arm for the customary handshake, and Robson pulled her in for a hug.
"I want to thank Kim," Robson told the crowd, "for being such a great role model to me for so many years."
Less than an hour later, Clijsters was hanging out in the players' garden alongside the stadium. She shared a laugh with some friends, hugs from others, and paused to pose for a photograph alongside 14-time major champion Serena Williams, who was headed out after partnering sister Venus for a first-round victory in doubles.
Clijsters was the only seeded woman who lost during the afternoon session of Day 3, when the winners included No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, defending champion Sam Stosur, 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and 2011 French Open champion Li Na.
Joining Robson with a surprise victory was American wild-card entry Mallory Burdette, the NCAA runner-up who reached the third round in her Grand Slam debut by eliminating 69th-ranked Lucie Hradecka 6-2, 6-4.
Until recently, Burdette planned to take premed courses as a senior at Stanford in pursuit of a career in psychiatry.
"It's been a crazy ride," the 252nd-ranked Burdette said.
Could get even wilder: She next faces four-time major champion Maria Sharapova, a 6-0, 6-1 winner Wednesday night over 78th-ranked Lourdes Dominguez Lino of Spain.
With her husband - Brian Lynch, an American who used to play professional basketball in Belgium - fidgeting from his front-row seat in the stands, Clijsters wound up getting the worse of lengthy exchanges. As big a forehand as Clijsters owns, Robson was out-hitting her, compiling a 16-11 edge in winners off that wing.
Clijsters went up a break in the second set, helped by a pair of double-faults by a slightly shaky Robson - nerves that were understandable, given the setting and the significance of this match. But Robson got right back in it, playing gutsy, go-for-the-lines tennis, repeatedly pounding the ball hard as can be, and seeing shots land right where she aimed.
"I really enjoyed myself out there," said Robson, who found herself singing along to the pop songs that blare over loudspeakers during changeovers.
As you might expect from a teen, the youngest player ranked in the WTA's top 100.
Try as she might, Clijsters could not quite gain the upper hand, no matter how many times she yelled "Come on!" and raised a clenched fist after winning points.
On one well-disguised drop shot by Robson, Clijsters raced forward and did her trademark splits through the doubles alley, stretching to get her racket on the ball. But her response landed in the net.
"I just wasn't good enough at the end of the match," Clijsters acknowledged.
She won't get the chance to play another.
"As a little girl, I got Christmas rackets under the tree and outfits of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, and I would want to wear them to bed, I was so excited," Clijsters said. "So for me to have been able to have been a part of women's tennis, and on top of women's tennis for so many years - you don't think about it when you're in it; you're kind of on automatic pilot. ... Now that I think about it, it's been a crazy rollercoaster at times, as well."