Clijsters Back On Court Where Her Love Of Tennis Has Never Gone Away

Kim Clijsters (photo: DDFT)

DUBAI, February 17, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

When four-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 Kim Clijsters of Belgium walked out on Centre Court at the Aviation Club to face World No. 16 and ninth seed Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships Monday night, it marked the first time in seven and one-half years since she had played a competitive match.

Choosing to begin her comeback in the Emirates – in a WTA Premier level tournament no less – it was easy to see how with Clijsters that once you’re a competitor, you’re always a competitor. Now, at age 36 and the mother of three young children, the Belgian’s love of tennis has never gone away. And it may explain why she’s decided to come back to the sport.

“It was a feeling that I had inside, a feeling that I had inside for a little while,” Clijsters revealed on Sunday during an interview session with tournament media in advance of her match with Muguruza. “Kind of talked to a few people. Once in a while that feeling would go away when I was home with the kids. A couple of times it would come back. It got stronger and stronger. I talked to my husband. He was like, ‘Why not? I was like, ‘All right. Yeah, why not?’ Why wouldn’t I do it?”

Against the former No. 1 and two-time major winner Muguruza, who accepted a wild card into the Dubai main draw after recently reaching the final at last month’s Australian Open, Clijsters started a bit tentative in her Dubai debut and was broken in her very first service game. However, by the fifth game, Clijsters hit her first ace, then fired a winner past Muguruza to hold serve and it was game on. As the match wore on, it became evident that Clijsters was rusty from her long layoff and also a couple of steps too slow for Muguruza, who won 6-2, 7-6 (6) in one hour and 37 minutes. Still, Clijsters played competitively and there were some small flashes of sparkle which gives her hope for a successful comeback. For one thing, she’s still world class when it comes to her ball striking ability. There’s lots to feel good about despite the loss.

“I’ve enjoyed the challenge. I’ve enjoyed it since the day I’ve decided to go for it. It’s been with ups and downs,” said Clijsters, who had to postpone her return to after the Australian Open while dealing with a knee injury. “Being 36 years old, you know that’s how it’s been for your whole career. It is with ups and downs. It’s how you mentally stay through it, how strong you stay through those kind of situations. 

“It’s all easy when it goes well, when you don’t have to worry about too many things. When things don’t go well, that’s obviously when you have to be committed and focused. I’ve been doing that. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s process that I’m really enjoying.”

Despite being broken twice during the opening set and unable to convert any of three break points she owned in the eighth game, Clijsters played decently. It’s just that on this calm 25Cº degree evening Muguruza was extremely solid on her service games and won 73 percent of her first-serve points. Plus, the Spaniard’s mental toughness coupled with her quickness in getting to nearly everything Clijsters hit proved to be a big difference throughout the match. In the second set, Muguruza raced to a 3-0 lead, but Clijsters broke back for 4-all and still showed some fight left in her. She fought off two break points to hold for 5-4 and showed a fearless, captivating resurgence in her comeback debut. The set went to a tie-break, which eventually went Muguruza’s way, 8-6. She outpointed Clijsters 81-67.

“I haven’t had that feeling of being scared,” said Clijsters. “So far, it’s still a motivation, yeah. There have been moments where I feel like I need to do this better, but it’s never a doubt that I can’t do it anymore. That’s one of the reasons why I also decided to come back, is because that belief somewhat was still there.”

During an on-court interview afterward, Muguruza said of her win against Clijsters, “I’m very happy. It was a special match. She’s an incredible player. I didn’t know how it was going to go, but I’m happy to face her and she’s going to give everyone a hard time.

“A player that played incredible can play incredible again. So, I was expecting it was going to be hard. … I was just trying to stay calm and just keep doing my game and hope it was going to go my way.”

Looking ahead, Clijsters will play hard court tournaments in Monterrey and Indian Wells (where she’s a two-time titlist) and Charleston on clay.

“I have expectations. They’re not result related or ranking related. They’re more individually for myself,” she said. “It’s getting a feeling of how I want to play out there. That’s the expectation or the goal I’m trying to get to. I have moments now where in practice, ‘This is it, this is how I want to play.’ I just have to be able to do it in matches now. We’ll see if I’m capable of doing that. I’m sure it will take time. But, yeah, like I said before, I’m kind of ready. I’m done with practicing. I want to be able to, yeah, put in the work in my matches.”

Around the DDFTC

• No. 22 Elise Mertens advanced with a 6-3, 6-0 win over No. 28 Wang Qiang and will face the winner of Tuesday’s first-round match between seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka and No. 21 Maria Sakkari. Also, No. 45 wild card Ons Jabeur beat No. 18 Alison Riske, 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3. Next, the Arab No. 1 from Tunisia will play top seed and World 2 Simona Halep on Wednesday. Finally, No. 17 Marketa Vondrousova defeated No. 41 Anastasija Sevastova, 6-3, 6-2, and next will face either No. 3 seed Elina Svitolina or 52nd-ranked qualifier Jennifer Brady.

• Six qualifiers (Jennifer Brady, Veronika Kudermetova, Kristina Mladenovic, Katerina Siniakova, Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Sorana Cirstea) and one lucky loser (Hsieh Su-Wei) were added to the main draw on Monday. All of them will play their first round matches on Tuesday, including Brady, who faces World No. 6 and third seed Elina Svitolina to begin Centre Court play at 2 p.m. local time. Defending champion and fourth seed Belinda Bencic will begin defense of her title against No. 31 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and No. 5 seed Sofia Kenin and No. 8 seed Petra Martic are also in action.

What they’re saying

Barbora Strycova, ranked 35th, after escaping with a 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-4 win over No. 29 Amanda Anisimova, in which she trailed 1-3 in the third set: “Always these matches, especially when you don’t play your best, and you win it, it gives you confidence. … It meant a lot to me actually.”

Belinda Bencic, asked if she feels any pressure to defend her 2019 DDFTC title: “No, not at all. I don’t really get why all of the people think that success and then after playing it’s pressure. For me, it’s not. It’s a privilege. I won here last year, so I can only play great again here. That’s how I see it. I think it’s all about the mentality.”