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It’s a hard life. Money, fame, adulation, five-star hotels, dining at expensive restaurants, seeing the world, working outside, doing a job you love – let’s face it, there aren’t many people with a great deal of sympathy for the lot of professional tennis players. Spare a thought, though, for the difficulties they do face. There’s pressure, undeniably. There’s living out of suitcases in foreign cities for 40 weeks a year. That can’t be easy. And, of course, there’s the fact that after roughly ten or fifteen years of living and breathing tennis, their bodies start telling them it’s time to quit.
Borg's comeback at age 35, with wooden racquet in hand, lost every match he played.
What then? Take up golf like Lendl? Start commentating like Mac? ‘Enjoy your retirement’? It’s no wonder there have been so many former players who’ve made the decision to dust off their rackets, squeeze into their old tennis gear, and take to the courts once more for the dreaded comeback.
The results are not usually impressive. Take Bjorn Borg’s comeback, for example, at the age of 35. No matter how much I’m sure he’d like us to, who could forget when the 11-time grand slam champion emerged onto the court in 1991, after a decade out of the game, with wooden racket in hand, and lost every match he played over the next two, ill-fated years?
There are exceptions to every rule, however. Right now, we are possibly witnessing the greatest comeback in tennis history. Just before her 24th birthday in 2007, Kim Clijsters retired – very much on her own terms – to become a mother. Two years later, she made her return to the WTA tour. The results have been plain for all to see, and they have been extraordinary.
Clijsters became the first person to win the U.S. Open (her second) as a wildcard in 2009 – only a few months into her comeback. She has since gone on to win the 2010 U.S. Open and the 2011 Australian Open. In all, the Belgian has won 7 of the 18 tournaments she has entered since returning to professional tennis. Arguably, she has been the WTA Tour’s most successful player in that time.
Hingis, Caprioti, and Seles all made impressive comebacks but none of them became better players after the layoff.
Has there ever been a comeback like it? Well, there certainly have been some notable ones. Martina Hingis, one of the greatest players of the last twenty years, returned to the top ten in 2006 after a three-year absence. Olympic Gold medallist Jennifer Capriati took over two years away from the game after losing in the first round of the 1993 U.S. Open, but would go on to win the French and Australian Opens back to back in 2001. The great Monica Seles returned in 1995, nearly three years after being stabbed on court. She promptly reached the U.S. Open final and won the Australian Open the following year.
These were all impressive, inspiring stories. There is a difference, though, between them –and all the other comeback players on the WTA and ATP Tours –and Kim Clijsters. In the case of all these others, their comebacks saw them come to within varying degrees of closeness to their glory days, but never quite repeat them. Clijsters, in contrast, has seen her greatest successes after her comeback. She claimed one major between 1999 and 2007; she’s won three since 2009. The only other player to achieve this was Capriati, but her grand slam glory came 5 years after her comeback; in Clijsters’ case it took two months.
Click photo: Kim Clijsters talks about her recent shoulder injury at the BNP Parabas Open.
So is Clijsters playing better now? Has she actually improved her game in a sort of two-year ‘off season’, recharging her batteries while looking after her young family? To be honest, probably not, at least as regards her physical and technical capabilities. Rather, what has changed the most has most likely been the level of competition, at the very top of the game.
Between 2001, when she first reached the top ten, and her retirement in 2007, Clijsters entered 20 major tournaments. She won one – the 2005 U.S. Open. Of her 19 defeats during this seven year period, 17 came at the hands of just seven players: Henin, Capriati, Venus and Serena Williams, Sharapova, Mauresmo and Davenport. To put this in some perspective, her 2001-2007 grand slam record against everyone else was 81-2 (97.6%). No fewer than 73 of these matches were straight sets victories
It is arguable, then, that Kim’s relative success in the majors since her comeback has been due to the retirement or decline of those seven players who had been holding her back before. Like before, she’s had a strong record against everyone else since her return, winning 27 of 29 grand slam matches (her two defeats came in a shocking performance in the 3rd round of the 2010 Australian Open against Petrova, and a quarter-final defeat in that year’s Wimbledon to fast-rising Zvonareva, then ranked 21). The difference appears to be that she’s not facing players in the final stages with both the game and the mentality to stop her.
It would be unfair, of course, to ascribe everything Clijsters has achieved these past couple of years only to weaker opposition. Before, the Belgian had a reputation for being a choker, and it was possibly one she deserved. Despite owning a winning record against the above-mentioned seven opponents in non-grand slam events –notching up 32 wins out of 52 (61.5%), Clijsters appeared unable to overcome them at the majors themselves, where she won only 6 of 25 (24%). No fewer than nine of those losses came in deciding sets, of which two were in the finals. When it came to the biggest matches against the biggest opponents, the Belgian had a tendency to let it slip away from her.
Well, not any more. Clijsters has come back from a set down against Venus Williams, against Henin, against Bartoli, and most importantly against Li Na in the 2011 Australian Open final. On her way to winning her last three majors, she’s demonstrated the ability to bring her A-game in the second week, beating top players Zvonareva, Wozniacki and even Serena Williams in straight sets. In fact, she has yet to lose to any of the seven players still on the tour (the Williams sisters, Sharapova and, for a while, Henin) who used to cause her so many problems.
It is true that the top-level opposition may not have been quite as strong as it was in the past, and that only time will tell whether the choking label has been well and truly put to rest, but the fact remains that Clijsters has still beaten all who were put against her – including all top ten opponents -in three of the last five grand slam tournaments she has entered, which is as much as anyone can ask.
A genuinely successful comeback is a rare thing in any sport, but Clijsters has demonstrated that it is possible for a retired sportsperson not just to relive but even to surpass their glory days. In the process, she’s also shown that motherhood needn’t mean the end of a modern sporting career. All this has been possible because she has the ingredients to make it work – she’s still young, she’s still hungry and, most of all, she’s still got something to prove. Far from being a failed attempt to retell old tales, as so many comebacks are, in Kim Clijsters’ case this could well be the beginning of a whole new story.
Tickets for BNP Paribas Tournament in Indian Wells
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From the BNP Paribas Open
Hitting the Backhand Down the Line
The down-the-line backhand is one of the most potent weapons in tennis, however, it does take a bit of nerve to pull the trigger on it. But the rewards can be slew of winners and a clearly frustrated opponent. Dave Smith talks about the strategy behind this shot when hit from a position of strength (inside the sideline), or from a more dire position, when forced out wide of the sideline.
ProStrokes 2.0 – Flavia Pennetta's Serve
This big ball striker from Italy is presently ranked 15 in the world and looking to climb higher. She has accumulated nine singles titles and 14 doubles titles on the WTA tour, which includes the 2010 Australian Open doubles title in 2010 with partner Gisella Dulko. Flavia has a solid two-handed backhand, outstanding net skills, and because of this has put together an outstanding doubles resume. Check out her strokes in slow-motion video in TennisOne's ProStrokes 2.0. New this issue, Flavia Pennetta's Serve.
TennisOne Writers Store
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