By Giri Nathan
As forcefully as this past US Open nudged the WTA into the future, minting two teenage stars pretty much out of nowhere, this week in Chicago reminded me of the importance of the classics. Because here comes a 38-year-old Kim Clijsters, making a mini comeback to last year’s big comeback, and getting tantalizingly close to her first win. It turns out that a full decade after her last major title, her tennis is still so good to watch, with or without the hyper-athletic sliding splits of old.
The Belgian is no stranger to the cycle of retirement and return. She first retired in 2007, taking a two-year hiatus before coming back to play some of her best tennis. She retired more conclusively at the end of 2012, at age 29, and it’s worth remembering that, despite injuries late in that season, she was still very much capable of beating the best, going through a No. 1 seeded Caroline Wozniacki to make the semifinals of the 2012 Australian Open. Seven years elapsed, including the births of her second and third kids. When Clijsters returned to the tour in 2020, the wild cards were thrown her way—one in Dubai, one in Monterrey—and she looked competitive in both first-round losses, and eager to play more matches, only for coronavirus to close down the tour. But late in that pandemic summer, she kicked some butt in World Team Tennis. When Clijsters showed up to the US Open, where she won three of her four major titles, she lost her first-round match in three sets—her first set won since her return. Then came the bad parts. There was a knee surgery that October to “repair damage sustained during my career and reduce pain,” followed by what she described as a successful rehab, only for her to contract COVID-19 in January 2021, which set back her preparation once again. She had to decline wild cards in Miami and Charleston to get back to training. Her return to competition week in Chicago is the culmination of all that.
Unfortunately for Clijsters, and fortunately for any tennis-loving viewer, the first-round opponent she drew in Chicago was Hsieh Su-wei. For a rehabbing player hoping to find some rhythm and ease back into match fitness, there may not exist a crueler possible name in the draw. Rare is the nicely weighted rally ball. In its stead is a slew of junk balls, plopped and scattered all over the court, across an excruciating procession of cat-and-mouse points. It’s much more suitable fare for your 20th match of the season than your first. Clijsters did admirably given the circumstances, weathering an eight-game streak from Hsieh to fight her way back into and win the second set. Hsieh prevailed 6–3, 5–7, 6–3, expressed her appreciation of her opponent, and offered a trademark goof: “I’m lucky I didn’t play her 10 years ago!”
Whatever time has taken off her once-otherworldly foot speed, Clijsters remains an incredibly pure hitter of the tennis ball. When Hsieh fed her off-speed weirdness, the Belgian showed she could thump those balls right through the court with gorgeous depth and control. Her game has way more to give, if only her health can sustain it. “The match, you know, some good things and bad things, inconsistency. Physically being able to get through these matches without big concerns, that was the main goal,” she said after the match. “I came close today, but I still have a good feeling.” She has said that she’s drawn inspiration from Andy Murray’s own comeback, which has been full of its own peaks and troughs and tear-jerking moments and seems in recent weeks to be in an especially healthy place. Both of these aging legends have been given wild cards to Indian Wells, easily the tournament I’ve missed most since the calendar was unwound by the pandemic. Clijsters won the title there in 2003 and 2005. Sixteen years later, she’s still eager to learn what the desert might bring.
Above: Kim Clijsters won this title at Indian Wells in 2005; she has a wild card there in 2021. (Getty)