After seven years away from the sport, Kim Clijsters announced her much-hyped return to professional tennis in September.
It hasn’t exactly been the comeback year she envisioned.
Yet despite the unprecedented and unpredictable circumstances of the 2020 season, she somehow has already has won a title. Following three grueling weeks of play at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, she and her New York Empire teammates hoisted the King Trophy by claiming the World TeamTennis championship earlier this month.
Not only that, but the 37-year-old recorded wins over reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, 2017 US Open victor Sloane Stephens and Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig during the tournament run.
“I’m really happy to see her back on the court healthy and playing well,” Kenin, who grew up idolizing the Belgian star, said after their match. “I’m truly happy that she came back. It shows that it doesn’t matter what age you’re at, you always can come back and do what you do best. She’s in great shape and playing really well.”
The former world No. 1 was sidelined during the team’s final matches because of an abdominal strain, which she says isn’t serious, but she was vital in the team’s early portion of the season and enjoyed her role as coach and cheerleader (and occasionally ball girl) during the title stretch.
Considering Clijsters recorded just two official matches in her comeback before the tour was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic in March ahead of the BNP Paribas Open, it makes what she has been able to do this summer all the more impressive. She admits it was odd to just be starting to get into the swing of things only to have everything shut down indefinitely, but it didn’t deter the four-time major champion and mother of three.
“By the time Indian Wells came around, I was really starting to hit the ball well, and feel like I was getting to be where I wanted to be on the court,” she said recently. “I was thinking, ‘This is the type of tennis I want to be playing’ and really looking forward to playing there. But then obviously that didn’t happen. A lot of people started asking me, ‘Are you just going to retire again with all of this going on?’
“But the thing is, I don’t mind going home and training and being home with the kids. I did wonder how I was going to feel, how I was going to stay motivated, but I’ve stayed very committed to it and overall my focus has been pretty good, surprisingly even. It’s been a challenge, but I enjoy it. I’ve always loved playing tennis, and that hasn’t changed.”
Clijsters has toyed with the idea of returning over the years but never seriously. She walked away from the game for the first time in 2007, at the age of 23, following a series of injuries.
During her hiatus, she got married to former professional basketball player Brian Lynch and gave birth to her daughter, Jada. After two years away, she returned to the tour more invigorated than ever. In just the third event of her comeback, she won the US Open, becoming the first unseeded woman ever to win the tournament and the first mother to win a major since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980. She went on to win in New York again in 2010, as well as claiming the title at the Australian Open in 2011, but she retired again in 2012, saying the non-tennis obligations often became too overwhelming and she felt bogged down with interviews, appearances and sponsorship obligations.
But with her youngest son approaching school age, it started to seem more feasible. Her urge to play competitively again grew to a point in which she decided she couldn’t fight it anymore. Her love for the game had never wavered, she insisted, and she believed she still had what it took to play against the best in the world. Having previously retired and unretired once before, she recognized the feeling.
This time, she insists, will be different. Now there will be a balance, and she feels confident to say no and turn down things she doesn’t want to do. Her children, now 12, 6 and 3, remain her priority, and she works in her training around their schedules. And if she needs advice about trying to do it all, she has some helpful co-workers she can turn to — former rival and 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka are two of a handful of moms currently playing on tour.
Clijsters, who has worked as a commentator for the past several years, has previously said watching them has motivated her, and it’s clear that feeling is mutual. After Clijsters’ first match in February — a loss to Garbine Muguruza in Dubai — Williams tweeted: “Seriously so so so proud of Kim Clijsters. You inspire me. Wow. Just wow congrats you did amazing.”
Seriously so so so proud of Kim Clijsters. You inspire me. Wow. Just wow congrats you did amazing.
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) February 18, 2020
Clijsters had planned on playing a partial 2020 schedule and never had intended in doing all — or even most — of the globetrotting, week-to-week grind of the tour.
Of course, ultimately the season, or what’s left of it, was decided for her, but she’s looking forward to next playing in the Western & Southern Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. The tournament, normally played in Cincinnati, will be the first of two events held in the crowd-less and heavily protocoled bubble in New York, with the US Open getting underway at the end of the month. Clijsters, a three-time former champion at the Slam, was granted a wild card for both tournaments.
“I’m excited to get to New York and play,” she said. “I haven’t played a full singles match [at WTT] or full doubles match, but I’ve played a lot of sets and I felt good. Obviously playing an official tournament again is the next step. It’s going to be strange with no fans, and I’ve always enjoyed playing in front of a crowd — especially those night matches at the US Open where there is such a different energy — but it’s still going to be a tennis match and you’re still going to have your coach and somebody there to support you.”
“If I didn’t feel like, or if I didn’t have that confidence that I could still play good tennis, then I would have never started this.”
One of the most well-liked players on the tour, by fans and her peers alike, Clijsters’ efforts in New York will be must-see matches, but she’s not thinking about that. Already enshrined in the Hall of Fame, she says she has nothing to prove to anyone this time around. That is, except herself.
“This isn’t for the outside; this really is for me,” she said. “It’s more a drive within me, where I know where I want to get to. And that’s what has been the motivation for this, because I feel like I can still play some really good tennis. That’s what gave me the push to go for it. If I didn’t feel like, or if I didn’t have that confidence that I could still play good tennis, then I would have never started this.
“I know I still have good tennis left in me.”