NEW YORK — Not accustomed to losing the last point at the U.S. Open, Kim Clijsters picked up her bag, waved and bid adieu to the fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium — summoning up a melancholy smile before making her way to the tunnel.
Her stay at her last professional tennis tournament ended much earlier than she'd expected. A winner of the last 22 matches she had played at the U.S. Open, Clijsters finally dropped one Wednesday, and with that loss ended a singles career that included four Grand Slam titles and thousands of good memories.
"It's been an incredible journey," Clijsters said, "and a lot of dreams for me have come true because of tennis."
She fell 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) to 18-year-old Laura Robson of Britain to finish with a 523-127 record, 41 titles and 20 weeks ranked No. 1, most recently in February 2011.
Through the starts and stops of a career that spanned 15 years, Clijsters handled all the wins and losses with class, standing out as someone who could keep up with the powerful games and personalities that took over her sport — and get people to like her while she was doing it.
"She was a tremendous athlete, a really good competitor," said Maria Sharapova, who won her match, 6-1, 6-0 over Lourdes Dominguez Lino. "I think 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 start that, and then coming back and achieving the things that she achieved."
Already with a U.S. Open title to her name, Clijsters walked away in 2007, but returned after getting married, having a baby and realizing she hadn't done everything she'd set out to do in her sport.
Now, she is nearing 30, her daughter, Jada, is 4, and it really is time to move on.
Earlier this year, she announced her last event would be the U.S. Open, the tournament she won in 2009 — only months into her comeback — and then again in 2010. Certainly, she didn't expect it to end in the second round, but knowing the end was coming one way or another, she said there were no regrets.
"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 last defeat at Flushing Meadows came against Belgian rival Justine Henin on Sept. 6, 2003, in the tournament final.
Robson was 9 at the time.
When it was over, one reporter asked the young British player: "Do you feel like the girl that shot Bambi?"
"I wouldn't go that far. I would say that was Becker beating Agassi here a few years ago," Robson said, referring to Benjamin Becker's four-set win at the 2006 U.S. Open that ended Agassi's career.
Robson knows, though, how much 23rd-seeded 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."
Clijsters was the only seeded woman who lost during the afternoon session of Day 3, when the winners also included No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, defending champion Sam Stosur, 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and 2011 French Open champion Li Na.
"The whole tour is certainly going to miss having her around. She's been a great player and a great person," Stosur said about Clijsters. "I guess she's ready to do other things. She's definitely one of those people that you can look up to and really admire with what she's been able to achieve."
In men's play, No. 3 Andy Murray, who won Olympic gold in singles and teamed with Robson for the silver in the mixed doubles, defeated Ivan Dodig of Croatia, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 in a second-round match. No. 4 David Ferrer, No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro, No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic and No. 9 John Isner all advanced in first-round matches.
The headliner on this day, though, was Clijsters.
Less than an hour after her loss, she 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 is still in the doubles draw, paired with another Belgian, Kirsten Flipkens, and they play a first-round match Thursday.
Clijsters said she needed to focus on that. Clearly, though, the time to reflect has begun.
"It's not just the tennis side of things that you think about now, it's about life," she said. "We've had a lot of things happen in these last 15 years that I've been on tour. I'm able to look back at them, and I'm very happy with the progress that I've made."