Dubai Tennis Championships: Vintage Kim Clijsters shows glimpses of 2011 heyday in 'third coming'

Tanuj Lakhina

Eleven of 19 women who occupied the top-20 rankings at the end of 2012 US Open have retired. The 20th in that list €" Kim Clijsters €" made her third return from retirement on Monday at the Dubai Tennis Championships.

In the stands was Conchita Martinez, a player Clijsters had faced six times from 2000 to 2005 and beat five times. The only time Conchita had won was in their first meeting in San Diego. Thereon, Clijsters would win 10 of 11 sets for a strong record against the Spaniard.

On court on the opposite side to Clijsters stood Garbine Muguruza €" a stronger and taller Spaniard when comparing to 'Conchi'. She possessed much bigger serve, a bullet of a forehand and a precise backhand. Keeping those skills going and mental approach in check for Muguruza was Martinez. Their partnership was back in place for the 2020 season and results had already shown: a final appearance at the Australian Open.

But what was transpiring in Dubai or the women's tour was less about Muguruza or the Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, but about Clijsters. The Belgian, a former World No 1, a four-time Grand Slam winner, 36-year-old, mother of three, was back on court once again. Her last appearance? 90 months ago. Her last hard court match? 2,727 days ago.

"I have expectations. They're not result-related or ranking-related. They're more individually for myself," Clijsters said on Sunday. "It's getting a feeling of how I want to play out there. That's the expectation or the goal I'm trying to get to. I have moments now where in practice, 'This is it, this is how I want to play.' I just have to be able to do it in matches now."

Many times during the hour-and-37-minute-long match, vintage Clijsters was there to see. The splits. The gorgeous drop shot. The impeccable touch at the net. The flawless contact with the strings. The volleys with little fuss. And above everything else, the fight. Oh, there was plenty of grit, fist pumps and shouts of 'C'mon!' that one had come to associate with Clijsters.

Clijsters started slowly and her serve left plenty to be desired through the course of the match. She was broken early in the first and second set and made to play catch up. The Belgian served 10 double faults, won just 58 percent of her first serve points and was even worse at 38 percent on the second. It didn't help that in her attempt at getting the second serve in, a short ball would be there for Muguruza to attack.

It didn't take long for the fans in attendance to see instances of the Clijsters magic of 2000s and early 2010s. The third game saw a trademark drop shot and a little 'C'mon' to push herself. A hold of serve brought the crowd to their feet and an uproar to go with it.

In the subsequent game, questions over her fitness were answered as she chased down a drop shot. She stood her ground to return the volley that followed but the ball sat up for Muguruza to smack for a winner.

Muguruza let Clijsters have a peek at a break ever so slightly at 5-2 but was quick to shut it back almost immediately with thundering serves. 32 minutes in and Muguruza, 6-2 in the first, was cruising along.

If the first started with a single break of serve, the second began with a double break. Muguruza had earned six break points and converted two to go 3-0 up. A spot-on review on a double fault call extended the game but couldn't change the outcome.

It looked tough for Clijsters as she took to the chair. She had chances to break and chances to hold, but Muguruza won the key points. The Spaniard was not allowing short balls for Clijsters to attack, she was keeping the ball deep and not allowing any chance.

But Clijsters had improved significantly from set one to set two. She was getting more balls in play, the error count had reduced and most importantly, she was able to match Muguruza from the back. In the fourth game, Clijsters finally got the breakthrough she was looking for. A forehand winner into the open court gave her the break, a first in four chances and the first since 29 August, 2012.

A backhand into the net by Muguruza a few games later brought parity with a double break advantage wiped out. Clijsters was oozing confidence, she was hitting the ball with much more gusto and playing strong on both wings. Like a boxer, she delivered blow after blow, jab after jab to move Muguruza around before seeing the opponent throw the towel.

The serve came under pressure in the next game but a successful Hawk Eye challenge once again helped her extend the game. And then it was technology that helped hold with an ace down the tee. From 0-3 down, Clijsters had managed to make it 5-4 and lead for the first time in the match.

With little to choose between the two in the next few games, a tiebreak was needed. Muguruza pulled ahead at 5-3 in that as well before seeing one match point opportunity pass by. A brutally strong serve on the second was enough to seal the deal.

Muguruza said in the on-court interview: "I think her game was very good. A player that played incredibly can play incredible again, so I was expecting that it was going to be hard."

Clijsters had told WTA Insider podcast in September, "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."

On the evidence of what happened on court in Dubai, the first couple of yards in the marathon are off to a promising start.

Also See: Belgium's Kim Clijsters accepts wildcard to make comeback from retirement in Dubai

Dubai Tennis Championships: Kim Clijsters loses in straight sets against Garbine Muguruza on return to WTA Tour

Wild card Kim Clijsters to face sixth seed Kiki Bertens in her first return game in Dubai

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