WASHINGTON, September 16, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
“What do I really want from life?” asks Kim Clijsters as she looks directly at the camera, recording her special video announcement that soon will go viral on social media and be seen by 1.9 million viewers. “For the past seven years, I’ve been a full-time mum. And I love it, I really, really do. But I also loved being a professional tennis player. And honestly … I miss that feeling. So … what if I tried to do both? Could I be a loving mum to my three kids and the best tennis player I can possibly be? Let’s do this. Let’s come back one more time.”
The emotional, minute-long video ends with Clijsters smiling, then pronouncing to all, “See you in 2020.”
— Kim Clijsters (@Clijsterskim) September 12, 2019
In an exclusive interview published on September 12, the former No. 1 from Bilzen, Belgium, announced on the WTA Insider Podcast hosted by Courtney Nguyen that she’s coming out of retirement next year. The 36-year-old Clijsters, a mother of three, discussed her decision to return to competitive tennis, her progress in training for a comeback and what her expectations are in returning to the WTA Tour.
Clijsters is a four-time major champion, who retired after the 2012 US Open. She left the game as a very likable individual, a down-to-earth peer favorite, who was admired and respected by everyone associated with the sport. So, throughout the tennis world, it was not a surprise that her decision to comeback to the WTA Tour next year was universally applauded.
WTA Tour CEO Steve Simon, for one, said, “Kim Clijsters ranks among the greats of the game and her return to the Tour is exciting news for the WTA family and tennis fans around the world.”
Hall of Fame great Billie Jean King tweeted her congratulations and appreciation for Clijsters:
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) September 12, 2019
Other congratulatory tweets were posted by the likes of Hall of Famers Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker and Andy Roddick as well as by fellow competitors Chanda Rubin and CoCo Vandeweghe.
“I don’t really feel like I want to prove something,” said Clijsters on the WTA Insider Podcast last Thursday. “I think for me it’s the challenge.
“I have friends who would say, I want to run the New York Marathon before I turn 50. For me, I still love to play tennis. Whenever I’m at a Grand Slam playing the Legends, if somebody asked me hey, do you want to hit some balls, I’m the first one to be like I’ll hit. I’ll be the hitting partner for your practice today. I still love playing tennis.
“The love for the sport is obviously still there. But the question still is, am I capable of bringing it to a level where I would like it to be at and where I want it to be at before I want to play at a high level of one of the best women’s sports in the world?
“I don’t feel like I need to prove anything, but I want to challenge myself and I want to be strong again. This is my marathon. This is where I’m saying OK, let’s try this.”
With her return, it’s the second time Clijsters has come out of retirement after an extended period away from the WTA Tour. She turned pro in 1997 and reached No. 1 for the first time in 2003 after playing in the shadows of fellow Belgian Justine Henin. Then, two years after winning her first major at the 2005 US Open, Clijsters stunned everyone when she announced she was retiring at age 23 due to injuries and to start a family.
However, after she gave birth to her daughter Jada in February 2008, Clijsters returned to tennis two years after she left, and in August 2009 she tallied two Top 10 wins while playing at the Western & Southern Open and the Rogers Cup. In just her third tournament back, Clijsters won the 2009 US Open (her second major title) as an unranked wildcard, becoming the first mother to win a major title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980. On her way to winning the US Open, she knocked off Venus Williams, Li Na, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki.
In 2010, Clijsters won five titles, including the US Open. Then, she won her third major at the 2011 Australian Open and, soon after, rose to No. 1 for the first time since 2006.
After the 2012 US Open, Clijsters retired, again. She had won 41 singles titles in her Hall of Fame career, including four majors, three WTA Finals titles (2002, 2003 and 2010), and was ranked No. 1 for a total of 20 weeks. After retiring for the second time, Clijsters went home to Belgium and gave birth to two boys. She also helped oversee her tennis academy and joined Eurosport as a tennis commentator.
Now, with each of her children (ages 2 to 11) born to her and her husband, Brian, off to school, Clijsters felt the time was right to make a comeback. She never had shook her desire to return to competitive tennis, where she compiled a 123-28 career record in Grand Slam singles and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017. Born to athletic parents (her father played professional football and her mother was an artistic gymnast), Clijsters was renowned for her own athleticism and exceptional movement on court as a player.
“These last few months have been tough, but I feel like I’ve had more energy these last six months or so than I’ve had in the last two years because I’m taking care of myself better,” Clijsters told the WTA Insider Podcast. “I’m not putting everything aside or towards the children, or I’m actually also giving myself some time, and it’s something that I kind of forgot about a little bit, you know?
“Even if I don’t make it, this whole process has been so worth it for me to get back into a good routine.
“I’m actually leaving the house in the morning after I’ve had breakfast. Like back in the day like with the three kids, I would sometimes just finish a little bit of oatmeal that Jada left in her bowl, or the kids left fruit out on the table that they didn’t eat. That was my breakfast a lot of times because we were rushing to school, or I was being late to daycare.
“Let’s see if I can get my body in shape to play tennis at a level where I would like it to be at, that I have in mind of where I would like to get to, and see if it’s possible. To see, first of all, if my body is capable of even doing that.”
It would be crazy to think Clijsters would return to the week-in-week-out grind of the WTA Tour. Instead, as a means of accommodating her family, Clijsters has suggested she won’t play a heavy schedule. Remaining flexible is important and it would enable her to accommodate last-minute needs at home. Some feel it might be realistic to see Clijsters start her comeback at next January’s Australian Open in Melbourne. From there, perhaps Clijsters could play in some select Premier and International events. As a former No. 1, she can request an unlimited number of wild cards until she’s able to reestablish her ranking.
For now, Clijsters remains firm that she’s in no hurry to rush her return. She will come back when she’s ready. When she does, it will be a tremendous addition to the current depth that the WTA is currently enjoying, in which there have been four different Grand Slam champions this year – Naomi Osaka (Australian Open), Ashleigh Barty (Roland Garros), Simona Halep (Wimbledon) and Bianca Andreescu (US Open).
“I’ve always gone by feeling and emotion,” said Clijsters during her WTA Insider Podcast interview. “I can’t even remember how many times past players, current players, coaches have told me, ‘What are you doing? You’re still young enough, you should be competing with the best out there,’ and I kind of always laughed it off. But I guess some of those words always kind of stayed in my head. But obviously not being in shape was obviously a big no or big question mark, too, a thing that I had to handle before I could even think about doing something like this.
“I feel like that is getting better and I still have time to become tennis-fit again. We’ll see where it will end. But it’s exciting and I’m happy with being able to do this and that, so far, it doesn’t influence my life as a mother, as a wife.
“I feel like so far it’s only given me extra energy, and a challenge, a purpose. I’ve really enjoyed it. Maybe in a few months I’ll regret it.”
Let’s hope not, Kim.