Kim Clijsters revealed that tennis-playing mothers Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka had been an inspiration to her, as she announced a comeback at the age of 36 that caught the entire sport by surprise.
In a phone interview with a small group of reporters, Clijsters said that her primary motivation was to challenge herself. Sitting in a commentary box, watching others command the big stages, has only fuelled her desire to return to the locker-room.
“I have girlfriends now who struggle to find ‘me time’, to live for their passion and still balance being a mum,” Clijsters said. “I do feel that is something that [affects] me too.
“I’m 36 years old, I know in four years I’m not going to be able to do this challenge. I’ve always followed my instincts. I was very young when I retired to have my first daughter and came back. To do it now is a challenge for me. I’m not afraid of it. I want to see how far I can push myself and what level I can get to – and embrace all the positives and negatives along the way.”
Clijsters is thus about to begin her third incarnation on the WTA Tour. She began the first as a teenage prodigy – almost the Coco Gauff of her day – as she reached the fourth round on her Wimbledon debut as a 16-year-old. Four years later, she became world No. 1 in both singles and doubles, the first Belgian to achieve either honour.
This period was arguably the high-water mark for women’s tennis. Almost every player in the top 10 was a future Hall-of-Famer, including the Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Clijsters’s compatriot Justine Henin. Which may help to explain why Clijsters won only one grand slam – the 2005 US Open – before retiring in the summer of 2007, aged only 23, in order to start a family.
After the birth of Jada in 2008, Clijsters made a triumphant first comeback as she won the 2009 US Open while still unranked. Two more major titles followed before she retired again in 2012, with her final match being a second-round loss to Britain’s Laura Robson on that same Arthur Ashe Stadium. She and husband Brian Lynch – a former basketball player and coach – then begat Jack in 2013 and Blake in 2016.
“The timing was right because I felt like it fitted in with my family life,” said Clijsters, who tried to take up marathon running but developed a cyst in her knee and concluded that her body was not designed for long distances. “Our three children go to school so I have time during the day. Jada was excited. She said ‘Mum, if you wanna try, then go for it.’”
Asked about Serena Williams – whom she beat twice in nine meetings – Clijsters replied “What she does is incredible. I’ve been on the sidelines, in the commentary booth, seeing her compete and fight at the highest level and I think it’s amazing. But I also admire the other women [with children] – Mandy Minella, Victoria Azarenka – who are trying to balance and get great results out there. I love seeing that there are so many mothers now in our sport.”
Clijsters has been followed by a documentary film crew for the past six months, which makes it all the more remarkable that the secret has been so well kept. She appeared in an exhibition match at Wimbledon in May, pushing Venus Williams close, but few guessed that they were watching a test event for Clijsters as well as for the new No. 1 Court roof.
“The documentary was something where they were going to record everything just in case,” explained Clijsters, who is hoping to begin the 2020 season in Australia. “It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I really felt ‘OK, let’s do this.’
“There are times when I have been watching and I’ve thought ‘no way I will be able to get close to competing with these players.’ I will have to be the fittest I ever have been, and move better than I did in the past. It’s unrealistic at this stage to say I want to get to the quarter-final of a grand slam, so I just try to stay in the moment and see where it takes me.”