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Belgian Tennis Star Kim Clijsters Makes Heroic Return To The Sport She Loves

By Alix Ramsay

And, ladies and gentlemen, she’s back. After three children, two retirements and seven and a half years away from the tour, Kim Clijsters is back.

She did not stay long, mind you, but that was hardly surprising. When she announced last year that she was going to make her return, she probably did not envisage playing a former world No.1, a two-time grand slam champion and this year’s Australian Open finalist in her debut match. Instead of a qualifier or someone she had barely heard of, Clijsters found herself up against Garbine Muguruza. It didn’t end well but it didn’t end badly at all – she lost 6-2, 7-6 in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Championships.

The start was pretty much as everyone had predicted – Muguruza took the early lead and Clijsters could not catch her. There were too many unforced errors, which was hardly surprising given that this was her first competitive match since the autumn of 2012, and her first serve was nowhere to be seen (10 double faults in two sets told its own tale). That coupled with Muguruza’s walloping first serve and deep hitting and “Aussie Kim” was in trouble.

That trouble seemed terminal at a set and two breaks down but then something remarkable happened. It wasn’t quite a Dr Who and the Tardis moment; she did not quite whizz back in time to the late summer of 2009 when she was winning the US Open just three tournaments into her comeback from her first retirement… but it was not so desperately far off.

With her 36-year-old joints fully warmed up and with a real feel for what was needed, Clijsters unwrapped all the old, familiar weapons. There was the trademark backhand, there was the laser-guided forehand and when she managed to take control of the baseline, she looked awfully good.

Her ability to create power and find placement out of what seems to be thin air is still as good as ever and even if movement is unlikely to be her strongest suit given her age and time away from the game, she can still craft a point with nous and guile – who needs brawn when you have brains? And just for the record, she can still do the splits mid-rally.

It took no time for Muguruza’s 3-0 lead in the second set to be overturned and, back on level terms at 4-4, it was the Belgian who was forcing the issue and making her much younger rival serve to stay in the set.

Fairy tales, though, are just fiction and the dream ending to her first match back was not to materialise. Muguruza hung on for dear life in the tiebreak and Clijsters’s comeback was over for the moment. Still, this had been a promising start. A really, really promising start.

“I do feel a little bit of – I’m not going to say relief, but a feeling of the pace I can handle,” Clijsters said. “The second set, I felt I was really in the match. I felt like for a while I was dominating some of the points. I think that’s a good feeling to have, knowing the way I started the first set.

“And then the way I was able to get back into that second set, with the type of tennis I played, it’s something that is positive about this match. I’ll take that with me for the next matches.”

Muguruza knew she had been in battle. As soon as Clijsters began to flex her muscles in the second set, the Spaniard looked nervous and edgy. Not half as nervous and edgy as Conchita Martinez, mind you, but then both coach and player knew what the opposition had been capable of in her pomp. The question they dared not ask was just how far off her pomp was this 36-year-old mother of three?

“It was a special match, I’m happy to be the one to face her,” Muguruza said. “I think she’s going to give us all a hard time. I think it was very good. A player that played incredible can play incredible again so I was expecting it to be hard.”

But why bother to come back? Clijsters has a happy home life; she is still loved wherever she goes (she was always one of the most popular players on the circuit) and she has stashed away enough cash to keep her and her family comfortable for the rest of their days. Yet, there was an itch that needed to be scratched. Could she still do it? Could she still compete with the top women? Dare she try it again?

Her daughter, Jada, may have moved the conversation on a little at the test event for Wimbledon’s No.1 court roof. Clijsters played Venus Williams on that day last May and once it was over, Jada asked how old Venus was. And Venus was three years older that Jada’s mum. “Blimey O’Reilly, Mum,” Jada said (or Flemish words to that effect), “you look 10 years older than her”. History does not record whether Jada was promptly grounded or simply put on washing up and bin emptying duties for the rest of the month but, suffice to say, Mum was unimpressed.

Sure enough, after so long away from the tour (and another two children during that seven years) there is a little bit more of Clijsters than there used to be and she has admitted that, at 36, getting back to match fitness has been anything but easy – but she is back and she plans to stay. Monterrey, here she comes.


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