DUBAI, February 18, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
Although the final score showed Garbiñe Muguruza defeated Kim Clijsters 6-2, 7-6 (6) in their first-round matchup at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships Monday evening, if one didn’t know, it never would have occurred to the casual observer that the 36-year-old from Belgium had been away from the WTA Tour for more than seven years.
At the conclusion of their one hour and 37 minute tussle on Centre Court at the Aviation Club in Dubai, Clijsters received a wonderful reception from the Emirates crowd as she left. It prompted the World No. 16 and ninth seed Muguruza to proclaim, “A player that played incredible can play incredible again. So, I was expected it was going to be hard.”
Indeed, Clijsters is still a world-class ball striker; her forehand remains a trusted ally. She can still hit the occasional ace to get herself out of trouble, and still knows how to execute her familiar slide and split on the hard court. However, there’s a few things that showed a bit of rust that, no doubt, Clijsters will work on and improve in due time: cutting down on 10 double faults, tinkering with her second serve (she won just 38 percent of her points on it), and eliminate the number of times her service is broken (against Muguruza she was broken four times).
While Muguruza showed much depth and intensity throughout the match – and didn’t rattle after her opponent erased a double break in the second set – Clijsters can feel good about her first match in her second comeback despite losing.
“I felt obviously the second set was a big difference compared to the first set,” Clijsters said during her post-match press conference. “My timing in the first set, my footing, just kept looking for it. I felt a few times it was there, then it would be off a few points. At times I felt like I was close. I was seeing the ball clear. Just started reading her game better, as well, getting used to her pace a little bit.”
— WTA (@WTA) February 17, 2020
Clijsters erased an 0-3 start in the second set and broke even at 4-all – even holding serve for 5-4 – before Muguruza mounted one final comeback that resulted in the match being decided by a tie-break, which the Spaniard won 8-6.
”Yeah, second set I felt I was really in the match,” said Clijsters, whose career win-loss record now stands at 482-122, including 41 singles titles. “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 the positive about this match. I’ll take that with me for the next matches.”
And what did Muguruza think of facing the four-time Grand Slam champion and former World No. 1? For one thing, she was impressed. “I mean, she’s an incredible player,” said the two-time major titlist and 2020 Australian Open finalist. “Excited to be the first one (to play her) … I was just thinking that no matter who wins, it’s going to be a fun match to play because it’s a player that I think has been seven years away. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m excited to see what it’s going to be like.’
”I think she played very well, especially in the second set at the end. It was very tight. She has the tennis over there. I’m sure she’s going to get better and better, for sure give us a lot of trouble. I think she played really well after all these years.”
A lot has happened to the Clijsters since she played her last competitive match at the 2012 US Open. Namely, she gave birth to two of her three children and in 2017, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. However, one thing’s certain: the Belgian superstar’s love of tennis has never waned.
As a former No. 1 player, Clijsters can accept unlimited wild cards. Since she doesn’t have to play a full WTA schedule, she can ease back into the grind of the tour. For now, Clijsters’ plans include playing tournaments next month on hard courts in Monterrey, Mexico, and Indian Wells, Calif., and in April on clay in Charleston, S.C. Looking back at her return Monday, on many levels, it was more reminiscent of a triumph than the agony of defeat.
“I had a good feeling out there,” said Clijsters. “I do feel a little bit of – I’m not going to say relief, but a feeling of the pace I can handle.”
Win or lose, a VERY impressive performance from @Clijsterskim clean ball striking and astonishing little nerves! 👏👏👏👍👍💪💪
— Chris Evert (@ChrissieEvert) February 17, 2020