Former WTA World No.1 and four-time Grand Slam singles champion Kim Clijsters was the latest WTA Legend to appear on “Hall of Fame Live” on the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s Facebook page.
The Belgian, who became a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017, took time on Thursday to chat with commentator Blair Henley about her induction at Newport, family life during the pause in the tennis calendar, and the current state of her hotly anticipated comeback, among other topics during the wide-ranging interview.
“There were so many incredible moments,” Clijsters recalled about her Hall of Fame induction weekend three years ago. “Going to the museum, seeing my name and photos next to the players who I looked up to when I was a little girl, who were my heroes — that was definitely a moment where I felt like, ‘Whew, this is bigtime.’”
“Your whole childhood comes back,” Clijsters reminisced. “From when you started playing tennis and the memories of when I was a little girl, when I was playing on the driveway of my parents’ house with my sister — we were pretending to be Steffi Graf and Monica Seles at the Australian Open! And then you see your photos [at the Hall of Fame] — it’s incredible. You kind of relive your whole tennis life.”
Clijsters, one of only seven women to have held the WTA World No.1 ranking in both singles and doubles, had just returned to WTA action for the first time since 2012 before the coronavirus pandemic sent professional sports into a worldwide hiatus.
Clijsters resumed her career in February, where she had a tight two-set loss to recent Australian Open finalist and two-time Grand Slam champion Garbiñe Muguruza at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. She played a second consecutive Top 20 foe in her next match, losing to Johanna Konta in another close two-setter at the Abierto GNP Seguros in Monterrey.
“My first feeling after the [Muguruza] match was, ‘Aw, I wish I could have gotten one more set out of that match!’” Clijsters exclaimed. “It felt like I came pretty close in that second set, and I felt like my level really raised. It was fun to play a match and get those little routines back in place.”
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“I’ve watched Garbiñe, I’ve practiced against her in the past, but never obviously played a match against her,” the Belgian continued. “So to be in the situation where I was able to do that, and to feel like, ‘Hmm, how quickly does she hit the ball, and how good is her serve, and how well does she return?’
“It’s two different things: you can sit on the back of the court and do commentary while you’re watching these players, or you can stand across the net from them and feel what it’s like. To me, that’s always been a very big factor: I can explain it better when I feel it.”
“So that was a nice experience, and [Muguruza] was great after the match as well,” Clijsters continued. “There was a player party afterwards, and we sat at the same table and talked a little bit.”
I may have lost the match but for me this was a win. Being back on Court … that’s the feeling and energy I’ve missed and loved finding it again. Now looking forward to working together with my team to continue to grow and find my rhythm – step by step! 💪 #fortheloveofthegame pic.twitter.com/wFRcp4JaYq
— Kim Clijsters (@Clijsterskim) February 18, 2020
Quality performances against two elite opponents combined to form an auspicious beginning to her first foray into WTA tennis since her most recent match, which came in 2012 against Laura Robson at the US Open — an event she had won three times during her reign at the top of the game.
“I was just excited to start,” Clijsters stated, regarding her comeback. “I’d been practicing for so long that I felt like, ‘Okay, I need to start playing matches, this is why I’m doing this.’ To my surprise, I wasn’t really that nervous. It felt very right to be there. It felt like the right choice.”
“I’m re-experiencing everything,” the former world’s top-ranked player added. “When I’m out there, things that back in the day were normal and happened automatically, I have to re-learn or find again. That’s been fun, at times frustrating, and all those emotions are fun.
“What I love the most about it is the process working towards an event with my team. There’s great moments in there, but also tough times, with injuries, with disappointment. And it’s all good, because we’re all in it together, and we accept it and we talk and we communicate. That’s something that I really enjoy about it.
“Of course it’s a balancing act, like a lot of parents who work and have kids and try to follow a passion. But we try to make it work, and it wouldn’t work without help and people around me, without my team.”
Clijsters has already famously proved she can execute an arresting comeback — after giving birth to daughter Jada in 2008, the star returned to court the very next year to win her second US Open title, kicking off arguably the most fruitful stage of her career at the major events. The Belgian won three of her four Grand Slam singles titles between 2009 and 2011.
Now a mother of three, with 12-year-old Jada joined by younger brothers Jack and Blake, Clijsters says that despite the return, “our lives really haven’t changed at home, and I like it that way. We just have our routines.”
“I’m away a little bit more — which turned out to be not that much these last few months — but it’s okay,” said Clijsters. “It’s a life that I’ve been used to for a very long time, and we enjoy taking the kids on the road, seeing different countries and getting to know different cultures.”
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Now ensconced within the tennis hiatus, Clijsters and her family are tackling similar issues that many people are currently facing — including handling her children’s education while schooling continues during the stay-at-home era.
“There have been a lot of different Teacher Kims, let me tell you that,” Clijsters said with a smile. “There’s been the patient Teacher Kim, and there’s been the frustrated Teacher Kim at times!
“For some reason, our six-year-old Jack, whenever he just hears the word ‘homework,’ he gets tired, he has a bellyache, he gets hungry. He literally starts to yawn non-stop, he just starts yawning at like ten o’clock in the morning. I’m like, ‘Jack, really?’”
“At the end of the day, we made it,” a relieved Clijsters continued. “He’s up to date with what he’s supposed to do.”
Nevertheless, even with having to focus on new activities during the tennis world’s cessation, Clijsters’s motivation to excel has not flagged during this interrupted season. “I haven’t given up, I want to keep going and see what I can get out of myself,” said the champion, who won her fourth and most recent Grand Slam singles title at the 2011 Australian Open.
Naturally, Clijsters is particularly focused on the major tournament where she has had the most prolific success of her career. “From the moment that I start thinking about if there’s a potential US Open, I want to prepare for that, I want to be ready and give it a shot, and see what I could do there,” said the three-time champion in New York.
“Anytime I step out on [Arthur Ashe Stadium], even if it’s just to watch somebody who’s out there, or just to do a ceremony or anything, It’s incredible, it’s so special to me personally,” Clijsters added. “I have so many memories there and you just try to take it all in again.
“If I get the opportunity to do that again, in a way it will almost feel like 20 years ago or 15 years ago, when I was out there. From the beginning, it’s like a new story. It’s exciting, I look forward to it.”
“I’m very happy to play out on Court 18 as well!” Clijsters smiled.