In perhaps the biggest sporting news of the week, former World No. 1 Kim Clijsters announced that she will be returning to professional tennis. And if anyone knows what returning to a sport feels like, it's Kim Clijsters. The six-time Grand Slam winner (four in singles and two in doubles), who has been top-ranked in both the singles and the doubles, has taken her time off the sport before; her first retirement, in 25, saw the No. 1 go through the birth of her first child and the death of her father, all in the span of 12 months.
Clijsters was only 25 at the time, and so a 'traditional' age to keep playing.
Only two years later, the Belgian came back to win three of the four singles titles following her return, only to retire again following the 2012 US Open, at the age of 29.
Now, Clijsters has announced another return to professional tennis in the 2020 season; she will be fewer than six months shy of 37 when she returns. But for Clijsters, a return is nothing particularly new. She may be 'old' by tennis standards, but consistently considered one of the most athletic, best moving players on court, Clijsters is perhaps one of the best candidates for a return.
Marking that return requires immense physical and psychological strength, and it is almost certain, given how much goes into training, that the former No 1's announcement has been a long time coming. But for a number of athletes, their second - or in Clijsters' case, third - shot at the game, is the making of them. And here's why.
During the first run of your career, there are pressures - both physical and psychological, that plague many athletes. As a young player on the circuit looking to give it all you've got, you have something to prove - not just to yourself, but to sponsors putting large amounts of money, teams of coaches and physiotherapists on your payroll. That, coupled with the already immense pressures that a professional sporting career brings, can push a younger athlete - even at their top level of tennis, to burnout even quicker than might naturally occur.
A second coming, or a return to the sport after a hiatus is generally easier on players mentally, particularly those who have already performed at the level of Clijsters, because they have less to prove to others. That psychological pressure being eased in no small part helps players play a longer, more sustained career and manage themselves better.
Age, particularly when accelerated with a professional sporting career at the highest level, truly does bring wisdom, and although there may be some external pressures, they are not as severe, and indeed, there is a deeper understanding of how to manage them. In essence, the accountability, to a player returning to a full-time sporting career, is in large part to themselves - as are the fruits of that return. If you were to ask every one of the top players today - irrespective of age, what kept them going, it would be passion for the sport. Unfortunately, the need to keep on one's toes, the tendency to get injured, and psychological burdens can douse that passion, quickly.
A return is the ability to play and pursue the sport you love, without the psychological pressures that your first stint at a sport brings, and since physiotherapy and medicine and therapy and healing are so advanced that now, a sportsperson can essentially play with a body much "younger" than their chronological age.
How sports science has contributed
The ability that athletes today have to return to the professional circuit is in no small part thanks to the advancements that sports science has made in the past decade. Even ten years ago, most of the recuperative techniques available to players were not as advanced as they are today.
That sports science has contributed in no small part to the longevity of several high-profile sports careers, among them Serena and Venus Williams, who at 37 and 39 are still competing at the highest level of tennis, of Roger Federer and of Rafael Nadal, who just won his 19th Major title.
Outside tennis, one person who has been very vocal about just how much sports science has helped his career is a man who could write the book on longevity - six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady, who at 42 is still playing, and won the 2019 Super Bowl with the Patriots.
The technology available to athletes today is so all-encompassing and so detailed that it can detect the most minute issues and asymmetries in the body, meaning that every small aspect of their game, their training methods, and even their diets and lifestyle can be fine-tuned to be able to work around those issues. It is by no means just related to medication or post match recovery techniques, although those are part of it. Today, sports science is able to go to the level of genes to understand what works and why, something that even 15 years ago may not have been the case. Working around - and with - genes is particularly relevant in the case of Clijsters, who comes from sporting family on both sides.
Being able to sustain and play longer, or even be able to make a comeback at an age when most people are retiring - in Clijsters' case, 36, which is young in the larger scheme of things, but in sporting terms is considered "over the hill", or at least later stage, requires an overhaul in a long-term lifestyle.
Today, in addition to recovery techniques, there are ways to prevent injuries altogether, and teams that are now more advanced than before work closely with athletes to ensure this. One example from within tennis is recent US Open winner Rafael Nadal, who has been plagued by injuries and last year came back with a game that was adapted to his changing body - something that has yielded phenomenal results for the Spaniard. Not only has it helped him manage his existing issues, but it has prevented the rise of new ones that might hamper him.
Another example of this is a man most consider to be the Greatest footballer of all time; Cristiano Ronaldo, last year, at 33, said famously that "most footballers [my] age are playing in Qatar or China, with all due respect". That statement had come on the heels of the five-time Ballon D'Or winner's move from one high-profile club - Real Madrid - to Juventus, in a deal worth 100 million Euro.
At the time, Juventus' medical team, which had conducted its pre-season tests, said that Ronaldo - who has scored 695 goals over the course of his career so far, had the "body of a 20-year-old". Injury management, pain mitigation, and indeed, a strict lifestyle - one that can be understood in even deeper minutiae today, have contributed, thanks to sports science, in no small part, to older athletes' ability to play on, or return to, a sport. Today, that can be understood in far more detail than ever before, and with athletes adhering more closely to teams of physiotherapists, sports scientists and medical advisors, they are able to play longer and better. Indeed, at the time of writing this, another oft-injured player - Tatiana Golovin - has announced her own return to tennis.
The mind needs training, too
While many athletes may physically be "freaks of nature", most still require training what they already have - and among other things, the mark of a top athlete is their mental tenacity. Medicine, diet and therapy may be at their top level, but mental conditioning is one of the biggest athletes of any sportsperson's game. The ability to cope with stress and the pressures of a career in the sporting limelight, while managing injuries and sustaining an extremely high level of sport - combined with the ability to take decisions under duress on the field are all important, and something every top athlete, including Clijsters, knows all too well. Mental conditioning, too, is a large part of sport training, and sports psychology is in fact a dedicated field of study and practice. Much has been said - and seen - about just how badly burnout can affect a player, and one need look no further than Nick Kyrgios - and Bjorn Borg before him, to see just how. Even No. 1s Novak Djokovic and Nadal himself have suffered, taken their distance from the sport, and returned.
The time off that Clijsters has had, coupled with the elite training she has almost certainly been undergoing for years, is almost crucial in the sense of being a refresher. It has served for Clijsters, as it has for many returning players, as time away from pressure to understand and remember their love of the sport - something that can often get lost in the pressure of a career at the top. For Clijsters in particular, there were also personal goals she wanted to accomplish; having done those, this third go at an immensely successful career is for her, absent of the onus of the need for time, financial necessity, or personal pressure.
As for a number of un-retiring athletes before her, Clijsters' return gives her the opportunity to play the sport she loves for herself, with a renewed vigour, passion and love for the sport that made her pursue it to begin with. And that passion, her undeniable skill, and the confidence of a team, Clijsters: Part III is for Kim Clijsters to go for, unbridled.