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Steve Flink: Clijsters Timely Comeback

3/30/2009 1:44:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When Kim Clijsters went into what many of us believed could be permanent retirement two years ago, her many admirers from all around the globe were understandably dismayed. The sprightly Belgian was only 23. It seemed much too soon for Clijsters to leave. But she had the best of reasons for stepping aside, namely marriage and forthcoming motherhood. She had accomplished a great deal since turning pro a decade earlier, securing a major title at the 2005 United States Open, achieving the highly coveted No. 1 ranking in the world, reaching the finals of three other major championships.

Clijsters did indeed marry pro basketball player Brian Lynch, had a daughter named Jada Ellie on February 27, 2008, and was seemingly gone forever as a professional tennis player. But now she has decided that she wants to return to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, and has announced plans to compete in three WTA events in August at Cincinnati, Toronto, and the U.S. Open. She will also appear in some exhibitions. She will find out if--- after 28 months away from the arena, after having her baby, after settling into a family life--- she can rediscover her old winning ways, rebuild her game to an acceptable level, and reinvigorate herself as a competitor after such a long stretch away.

I have no doubt that she will be back near the top relatively soon after her return to the upper levels of her sport. She will be 26, but that is neither young nor old in the tennis player’s universe. She will need to work hard to fully explore her current capabilities, and will have to contend with a wave of new players she had not confronted before her departure. But the view here is that she will hardly skip a beat as she moves back into the heat of competition, and her summertime reemergence will not come a moment too soon.

The women’s game needs her back among the elite for many reasons. The leading players these days are an almost entirely unreliable cast. Jelena Jankovic did not win a Grand Slam championship in all of 2008, but at least the Serbian performed with unparalleled consistency from the beginning of the year until the end. She made it to the quarterfinals or better in 20 of 22 events, was a semifinalist at the Australian and French Opens, and reached the final of the U.S. Open.

Her consistency carried her to the No. 1 world ranking for the year. It was unfortunate that she could garner such a high honor despite not collecting one of the four major prizes. That was not unprecedented in the recent world of women’s tennis. Lindsay Davenport took the top honor as the year end world No. 1 in 2001, 2004 and 2005 without capturing a major in any of those seasons. Martina Hingis concluded the 2000 campaign as the top-ranked player in the world without securing a Grand Slam title that year.

I had hoped that Jankovic could demonstrate her credentials as an authentically great player by winning at least one major in 2009, and that may yet be the case. But she has started this year abysmally, losing in the round of 16 at the Australian Open, suffering a string of early round defeats, falling inexplicably the other day in the second round of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami to Gisela Dulko. Only once in five tournaments has she made it as far as the semifinals.

Dinara Safina--- now stationed at No. 2 in the world--- was upended in Miami by Samantha Stosur. Vera Zvonareva---- the champion at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells--- lost disappointingly in the third round of Miami. Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champion and Australian Open finalist, had seemingly moved back toward the upper level of her game after reaching the final of Indian Wells, but she lost in the third round of Miami as well. It has not been a positive time for the women’s game with so many remarkable players performing unremarkably.

To be sure, Serena and Venus Williams have committed themselves to a larger degree than ever before. Since the middle of last year, they have been the standout players. Venus beat Serena in the Wimbledon final. At the U.S. Open, they produced the match of the year in women’s tennis, with Serena somehow halting her older sister despite being down set point twice in the opening set and eight more times in the second. Serena took that quarterfinal contest 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7), and went on to win the title with a final round victory over Jankovic. At the year end Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha, Qatar, Venus closed the year in style by cutting down Zvonareva in the championship match.

At the start of this year, Serena Williams was victorious at the Australian Open, taking her tenth Grand Slam title in the process. She is to be commended for her professionalism and renewed work ethic in her late twenties, and Venus should be applauded as well. Without these two enduring champions reclaiming some of their old glories, women’s tennis would be hurting even more.

But the fact remains that Maria Sharapova has not played a singles match since a recurring right shoulder injury forced her to retire prior to a third round meeting against Ai Sugiyama in Montreal last summer. Sharapova--- a singularly charismatic player who had played some of the most inspired tennis of her career in winning her third career major at the 2008 Australian Open--- is sorely missed these days. Sharapova is one of those rare players--- along with the Williams sisters--- who spark interest not only among tennis fans but in the sports world at large. But who really knows when she will come back to playing singles? Could she be gone forever?

Kim Clijsters is not a player who transcends tennis, but tennis fans will eagerly await her reemergence over the summer. Clijsters was never a dynamic competitor with a dazzling shot making artistry. But her universal appeal to the galleries is largely a product of her joyous approach to competition, her capacity to shape strategy and thwart adversaries with her match playing acumen and resilience, and her unflagging qualities as an outstanding sportswoman.

Drift back briefly in the eye of your mind, and you will see Clijsters in her heyday, brightening up the premier stages in tennis with her presence. Remember her breaking into the top five in the world in 2001, pushing Jennifer Capriati to the brink of defeat before losing nobly in the French Open final by scores of 1-6, 6-4, 12-10. Flash to Clijsters in 2003, going all the way to the finals of the French and U.S. Open Championships before bowing against countrywoman Justine Henin.
Keep reflecting just a little longer, and you will recapture the image of Clijsters eclipsing Venus Williams under the lights in a stirring 2005 U.S. Open quarterfinal, ousting Sharapova late on a Friday afternoon in the semifinals, and dissecting of Mary Pierce in the final. The memories linger on; the images of Clijsters remain. Can she give us a new collection of memories?

I believe she definitely can. It will take her some time to get re-acclimated, but it won’t take long. Injuries kept Hingis out of the game for three years following the 2002 season, but she restored her place as a top flight player in 2006, finishing that season at No. 7 in the world and rising to No. 6 before testing positive for cocaine in 2007 and retiring at the end of that year. Monica Seles was out of tennis for about 28 months after she was tragically stabbed in the back at a changeover on April 30, 1993 in Germany. Seles made a magnificent comeback in the summer of 1995, winning the Canadian Open and reaching the final of the U.S. Open. At the start of 1996, she won her last major at the Australian Open.

So I see no reason why Clijsters should not be back in the top tier of the sport. She will clearly not recover her old No. 1 world ranking, and yet her superb court coverage and defensive skills can and should bring her back to the top ten. But no matter how well she fares in this next phase of her career, this much is certain: just by showing up again, simply by performing at a reasonably high level, she will make women’s tennis not only more intriguing but also a fundamentally better place.

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