When Kim Clijsters announced her first comeback to professional tennis in the summer of 2009, the news was met with joy. It seemed right and just. In the first stanza of her career she established herself as one of the best players in the world while surrounded by legends, but her career was always defined by what it lacked: she was a freakish athlete who made crowds gasp every time she routinely slid into full splits at full speed on hard courts, but she had lost her first four slam finals. She was a choker, people said. After finally winning her first slam at the US Open in 2005, Clijsters departed two years later at the age of 23. It felt like she still had more to give.
Clijsters’s comebacks took even herself by surprise. She had been invited to the opening of the Wimbledon Centre Court roof in 2009 for an exhibition with Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi and Tim Henman. As she worked herself into shape for the match, the joy of discipline and setting goals returned. She made her way back into the sport just a couple of months later, embarking on one of the most legendary comebacks in the process. In her third tournament back, still without a ranking to her name, she beat Serena Williams in a controversial US Open semi-final and went on win the tournament, beating 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki in the final.
From crumbling under pressure and losing the first four grand slam finals of her career, Clijsters finished her second stanza by winning four in a row. Armed with the perspective of a life outside the rigid confines of an individual sport, she marched around the tour and snatched the career most fans envisioned for her. After being cast in the shadow of Justine Henin and the Williams sisters for so long, she had stepped into the light as a hall of fame champion in her own right and, back then, she was a rare example of a thriving working mother at the top of the professionalised era of tennis. When she finally departed in 2012, her body was falling apart and her motivation was waning. The timing of her departure seemed as apt as her return.
Last September, shortly after the US Open, Clijsters announced another comeback. This time it was not easy to find cynical opinions about her motivation and the indecision of players weaving in and out of retirement instead of making a permanent decision. The likes of Martina Hingis and Justine Henin have returned in recent memory. Her former boyfriend, Lleyton Hewitt, continues to appear in doubles draws at random. As Karolina Pliskova wondered aloud after the announcement, she summed up the whispers around the sport: “I don’t know if she maybe thinks that the level of tennis is not that great now, so she wants to [return].”
Instead Clijsters’s motivation was a little closer to home. After her second retirement she lived a peaceful, quiet life with her husband and three children. Although athletes often struggle once the intense pressure of elite competition is no longer the base of their lives, Clijsters was happy. But after a lifetime of single-mindedly chasing her goals and thriving, her days were centred around her children and their routines and at some point she lost some of herself. She desperately needed to do something for herself and even just returning to training was transformative for her mental health.
“The process I’ve been going through has been tough, but I feel like I have had more energy these last six months or so than I’ve had in the last two years,” she told WTA Insider in September. “Because I’m actually taking care of myself better, I’m not taking everything aside towards the children and it was something I forgot about. I’m actually leaving the house in the morning and I’ve had breakfast.”
Clijsters pointed out all the people she knew preparing for marathons and that this was the challenge she set for herself: “I don’t feel like I need to prove anything,” she said. “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.” There is a lesson within because the scepticism of Clijsters’s latest return goes hand in hand with calls for older athletes like Venus Williams to depart into the night. It is easy to argue when an athlete should hang up their boots or to question their motivation for returning, but this is a reminder that motivation is personal and it concerns nobody but themselves.
On Monday afternoon at the Dubai Championships, Clijsters, now aged 36, returned against Garbiñe Muguruza and she was down 6-2 3-0 after 40 minutes. Her technique was as she left it in 2012. Her timing was crisp, but each perfect strike was eventually followed by shanks that rifled into the back fence. After seven and a half years, it seemed to be good enough for the time being. But as the match continued, Clijsters was slowly remembering how to compete in real time. She started to pump her fists between points and began to clean the lines. By the end of the match, it took the two-times slam champion and Australian Open finalist a tight, nervy tie-break to edge out Clijsters in two sets. Clijsters had no reason to expect anything more after so long, but she left the court seething at her own mistakes. Her marathon has begun.