Clijsters Back for Many More Returns
When Kim Clijsters returns to the women's tour next month, don't expect the preternaturally pleasant Belgian to snarl at the competition like a mother bear with a newborn cub - even though her 17-month-old daughter, Jada, will be in tow.
Clijsters insists she's the same sociable person whose sweet disposition made her popular with fans and peers but also earned her, rightly or not, a knock she carried into retirement: underachiever.
"It never really bothered me," says Clijsters, who held the No. 1 ranking for 19 weeks and won the 2005 U.S. Open before pulling the plug on her career in the spring of 2007 at 23. "I think it's a compliment in a way. I'd rather be known as a nice person than not nice."
If the athletic baseliner known for her gymnastic hardcourt splits and infectious smile hasn't ditched nice for spice, summoning a killer instinct could determine her success in Act II of her career.
Now married, a mother and unranked, Clijsters kicks off her comeback Aug. 10 at the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open in Cincinnati. She is a wild card, a status she will replicate at the other two events she plans to play this summer, the Rogers Cup in Toronto and the U.S. Open.
The decision to relaunch her career on cement during the US Open Series is a no-brainer. The USA has been a bastion of success on and off the court.
Twenty-three of Clijsters' 34 singles titles have come on hardcourts, and more than a third were won on U.S. soil. Her husband, basketball player Brian Lynch, is American, and her lone Grand Slam tournament win came in New York.
"I have a lot of great memories from playing in America," says Clijsters, who doubled her 2005 U.S. Open winner's check to a then-record $2.2 million by virtue of her victory in the US Open Series the same year.
Still in her prime
Clijsters' career resumption holds huge promise for two reasons: She is neither beat up nor, just a month past her 26th birthday, over the hill.
Her former coach, Marc Dehous, thinks she will be immediately competitive and goes so far as to say she has a good shot to win the U.S. Open and eventually return to No. 1.
"Once she gets in a full schedule, she'll skyrocket in the rankings," says Dehous, who coached Clijsters from 2002 to 2005 when she reached the top ranking and won the U.S. Open.
"The pressure is off, (nemesis) Justine Henin isn't around anymore and she has the feeling she doesn't have to prove anything," adds Dehous, who says Clijsters is more mature and balanced.
A return to the top is not guaranteed.
"One way or another, it's going to take time no matter who you are, what your game is," says former No. 1 Maria Sharapova, who came back in May after missing eight months with a shoulder injury.
Either way, Clijsters' return provides welcome luster for a women's tour wanting in compelling star power compared to the men.
"We all are thrilled that Kim is going to rejoin the tour," says WTA Tour CEO Stacey Allaster, who was tapped to replace Larry Scott last week. "We all know how much fans loved her. She exemplifies high performance on the court and has been a great ambassador off it."
Many were surprised when Clijsters hung up her rackets 21/2 years ago - just as her Belgian rival, Henin, would do a year later at 25. Clijsters cited a loss of motivation, injuries and her desire to have a family.
"I had a really strong feeling of getting to a different stage of my life," Clijsters says. "I always wanted to be a mother. Mentally, I wasn't 100% focused on tennis. I wasn't enjoying it as much."
Clijsters has no regrets about the time away from the tour. She reconnected with family and friends and, most important, was able to spend time with her father and spiritual mentor, Leo, who died of lung cancer in January.
"Of course I would have loved to have had another 20 years (with him)," Clijsters says of her father, a world-class soccer player who helped lead Belgium to the 1986 World Cup semifinals. "But the quality that we had together was extremely high."
Clijsters says the dual experience of giving birth and watching her father die provided a profound window into both sides of life.
"It was amazing to share having a baby with Brian and, at the same time, with my dad, it was hard to see him go through the suffering," she says.
Though she kept in shape, Clijsters had no intention to come back. But while training for an exhibition to test out Wimbledon's new retractable roof in May with Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi and Tim Henman, she found herself again bitten by the bug to compete.
Motherhood and competition
Clijsters even sought long-distance advice from 33-year-old Lindsay Davenport, who gave birth to a son in 2007 and then returned to the tour, winning two of the first three events she played. In between text messages and e-mailed baby pictures, Davenport offered counsel on traveling with a toddler.
"It was fun to talk to Lindsay through the whole baby experience," Clijsters says of Davenport, who gave birth to a second child last month.
Still, motherhood and major cham pionships have not mixed well. In the post-1968 Open era, only Evonne Goolagong Cawley of Australia has managed it, winning the 1980 Wimbledon title at 29, three years after giving birth to a daughter.
Clijsters occasionally ran into Goolagong Cawley when she dated Australian Lleyton Hewitt early in the decade. The meetings had little resonance then, but now that Clijsters is embarking down the same path, she admires what the seven-time major winner did.
"I never thought that much of it until I had a baby myself," she says. "You kind of get a higher sense of respect in a situation like that."
Davenport thinks she can pull it off.
"I think she'll be the first mom since Goolagong to (win a major)," says the three-time major winner from the USA.
Clijsters is keeping her goals modest for now, or at least close to the vest.
"A thousand people have been asking me that," she says, adding she will re-evaluate in the fall after New York. Any performance benchmarks are "inside myself," she says. Her focus is staying healthy and figuring out how to blend changing directions on court with changing diapers.
Support won't be lacking. Clijsters' large traveling entourage will include her husband, her coach, Wim Fissette, a physical trainer, a PR representative, and the occasional friend-nanny. She says she's lucky to be able to have a big group around her and insists Jada and her family will remain the top priority.
"The bigger goal," she says, "is combining motherhood and being a wife with being a tennis player."