WTA players eager for Kim's return

 - Reem Abulleil

The news of Kim Clijsters' comeback plans has sparked all sorts of reactions from the players.

Smiling Kim Clijsters at Roland-Garros 2017©Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Like the rest of the world, the leading players of the WTA tour are understandably shocked to hear the news of Kim Clijsters’ impending comeback. But the majority also cannot wait to see how the Belgian fares in the tennis circuit’s current landscape.

Clijsters, a Hall of Famer, former world No.1, and four-time Grand Slam champion, recently announced her plans to make another return to the sport, seven years after hanging up her racquets for a second time.

The 36-year-old intends to restart her tennis career at the start of 2020, as she looks to take on the challenge of being a mother of three children while competing on the pro tour.

Martina Navratilova and Kim Clijsters Trophée des Légendes Roland-Garros©Philippe Montigny/FFT

Ash Barty and Li Na looking forward to it

“It happened overnight. I woke up in Australia, saw the news. It's exciting. Kim is a player that I would have loved to have had the opportunity to play,” world No.1 Ashleigh Barty told reporters in Wuhan this week.

“I know a lot of girls are excited she's coming back. Hopefully first and foremost her body allows her to do that, she stays injury-free and can get back on the court.”

Retired Chinese legend Li Na, who became Asia’s first ever singles Grand Slam champion when she lifted the Roland-Garros trophy in 2011, is a mother of two, and understands how difficult the adventure Clijsters is about to embark on really is.

“It is a courageous thing to do. She loves this sport, and that is why she decided to come back. No matter what happens, I wish her every success,” said Li Na, who walked away from the sport at 32, after adding a second major to her resume at the Australian Open in 2014.

Caroline Wozniacki and Kim Clijsters Australian Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Keen for a rematch

Barty is not the only player relishing the idea of squaring off with Clijsters on the court, and Li Na is not the sole person marveling at what the Belgian is attempting to pull off. Simona Halep joins both in their views on her return.

“My reaction was like, wow, a little bit shocked honestly,” said Halep, a champion at Roland-Garros last year.

“To have three kids, she wants to come back, it's a big, big thing in my opinion. It's very impressive.

“Now that I have the chance to play against her again, I would like to, because she beat me once in Brisbane. I really couldn't forget that match. If there is a chance to play against her again, I will be happy. She was very nice to me every time after losing the finals in Grand Slams.”

Why did that Brisbane loss sting so much?

“Because I had like 0-6 one set,” replies Halep with a smile.

“I never forget when I take 6-0. I don't forget the way she was hitting the ball very strong. Her position is always aggressive, close to the baseline. She hits every ball, she has it. I have things to learn from her. It's good to be back on court with her. It's going to be very good for the tennis.”

Change in landscape

A lot has changed over the past seven years in tennis, and the tour Clijsters is returning to is not the same as the one she left.

The mix between youth and veterans is quite unique, with 38-year-old Serena Williams still making Grand Slam finals and ranked in the top-10, 21-and-under players like Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka winning majors, and even 15-year-old Cori Gauff making the second week at Wimbledon.

“I think she's coming after seven or eight years away from the tour. A lot of things changed,” said two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who was sidelined for nearly six months after suffering a horrific attack by a knife-wielding home intruder, who stabbed her left-playing hand, at the end of 2016.

“I think that physically it's much tougher than it was before. It's a pretty long time. I was out for a couple of months, but not like for seven years. I can't really say how tough it is. But definitely it will be very tough. We are seeing girls who were out for one year or two years still trying to come back. It's not really easy. We'll see how she can do that.”

2009 Roland-Garros winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, a contemporary of Clijsters who suffered seven losses from eight meetings with the Belgian, is in the middle of her own comeback from injury at the moment, having struggled with wrist issues over the past couple of seasons. When Kuznetsova had her wrist surgery in Belgium, she consulted with Clijsters, and spent time in her home.

Shocked reaction

The Russian’s reaction to Clijsters’ news was rather comical.

“That’s crazy. I looked on Instagram, she’s saying something [in her announcement video] and I turned on the volume, and John McEnroe said, ‘Maybe you come back’, and she’s like ‘hehehe’ then, ‘See you in 2020’. I’m like, ‘Is she the new director of the Championships?’” explained Kuznetsova.

“I didn’t get it, what is she announcing? Kim tournament director? No. And then I listened again… I mean it’s great for the tournaments, it’s great for tennis.”

Kuznetsova, who is just two years younger than Clijsters, has had her fair share of ups and downs, and is well aware of how tricky a comeback can be. 

“It’s a new challenge for her. When she came back last time she won a Slam. And I remember when she was leaving [tennis], she said, ‘I’m so sick of doing this rehab’, because she was doing like one hour and a half of rehab of her body every day,” said Kuznetsova.

“So I wonder how she’s going to manage three kids, her rehab, practice and all that, it’s a new challenge and I’m very curious and very respectful to see what’s going to happen.”

Kuznetsova added that the depth in the WTA field nowadays makes for some tough draws all around.

“It’s a different tour. There are no easy matches, but if you’re very consistent and play at a high level, you can be where the top girls are. But you have to really have a high level,” she said.

“It’s no easy matches like it was before, where you have one, two, three rounds easy, and then play. I guess probably that’s where Kim left it. Now it’s more complicated, I think this is the only difference.

“I wonder how it’s going to be, because for me it was difficult to come back. But Kim her comebacks were stronger than mine, so I wonder how she’s going to manage.”

Kim Clijsters© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Keeping the pressure off

Clijsters did not specify what her tennis goals are upon her return – something Kuznetsova views as a clever move.

“Her goal in the video was how she can do three kids and tennis, can she do both good? What’s good? She never said it. Which was smart from her side as well, she’s not putting any pressure on herself,” she added.

Former US Open champion and Roland-Garros runner-up Sloane Stephens joked about Clijsters’ motivation behind coming back.

“I think it’s great obviously. I don’t know, maybe she thinks we’re all like terrible now, she’s like, ‘I’m going to come back’,” laughed the American.

“I think it’s pretty cool, it’s awesome, she’s a mom of three, and the Hall of Fame. There’s so many good things about her, she’s a great player to have on tour. I think it’ll be fun, I think it’ll be interesting and I think it’ll be quite the story.”

Stan Smith, Kim Clijsters and Todd Martin Us Open Hall of Fame ceremony©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Only when she is ready

Clijsters told WTA Insider in an interview after her announcement that she feels she has nothing to prove, and hopes to return by next January’s Australian Open. She said she won’t step on a match court though until she is 100 per cent ready.

Barty is certain that whenever Clijsters chooses to lace up her tennis shoes and play her first match, she’ll be good to go.

“I think deep down she must know she's able to do it because I think a champion of Kim's calibre wouldn't do things kind of halfway,” said the reigning Roland-Garros champion from Australia.

“She's going to come all in. Hopefully, touch wood for her, her body stays healthy over these next few months, she can really get that work in. I'm sure whenever she does start playing again, it's going to be with some real force.”

We’re all eagerly waiting to witness that force take over the court soon!