Clisters return adds new dynamic
Here we go again.
First it was Martina Hingis, who drove foes nuts thanks to a lethal and almost extinct combo of guile and variety. Then came Lindsay Davenport, she of the punishing serve and thunderous groundstrokes. They're more common sightings nowadays.
Now Kim Clijsters, yet another Grand Slam champion and perhaps a hybrid of the two, is on the comeback trail after a lengthy hiatus.
The much-loved Clijsters revealed the worst-kept secret in tennis Thursday, announcing her decision to return during the U.S. Open Series. By that time it would have been more than two years since the hustling, elastic and oh-so-nice former world No. 1 contested a meaningful match. An impending marriage, desire to start a family -- realized with the birth of daughter Jada in February 2008 -- and injuries sent Clijsters into retirement initially.
Return still unknown
When an ailing Maria Sharapova pulled out of the ongoing Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, it handed ammunition to those who suggest the three-time Grand Slam champion -- and sponsorship darling -- might not be back for the foreseeable future.
But Nick Bollettieri, who nurtured Sharapova at his famed tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., scoffed at the notion the 21-year-old's career is in jeopardy. Sharapova skipped Miami after losing her opening doubles match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, situated in the California desert, on March 12. She had been sidelined for about seven months with an injury to her serving shoulder that shows no signs of getting better quick.
"I've heard absolutely no conversation about Maria not trying to come back," Bollettieri said.
Sharapova doesn't know when a return beckons, however, and Bollettieri acknowledged shoulder injuries are particularly "tough." Just ask German Tommy Haas.
"A shoulder injury has a tremendous impact on the two most important parts of the game,'' Bollettieri said. "Certainly the serve. Maria was always able to get a very good serve in. She's not a great mover. She relies on a very good serve and then comes inside the court and puts the ball away."
Armed with more spare time than usual these days, Sharapova was busy promoting a new Sony Ericsson cell phone Thursday.
"Her return is good news because Clijsters put on a show," said coaching guru Nick Bollettieri. "She was one of the few girls that could slide on a hard court. She's a scrapper, she's a Grand Slammer, and we need a little bit more excitement on the tour right now."
Still reeling from the departure of Clijsters' bitter rival, the all-conquering Justine Henin, much joy ensued in tiny Belgium, currently relying on the likes of Steve Darcis and Yanina Wickmayer for its tennis kicks.
"The whole country is upside down," said Belgian Filip Dewulf, a 1997 French Open semifinalist turned tennis journalist. "Even when she was off the tour, she was still considered one of the big stars in Belgium. She has this image of being a perfect Belgian neighbourhood girl. We all hoped she'd come back. It's big."
And not entirely surprising.
Clijsters has been practicing in a manner not usually associated with playing an exhibition to test Wimbledon's new roof in May, another grass-court exhibition at June's Ordina Open in the Netherlands and a few encounters for the St. Louis Aces in World Team Tennis in July. Clijsters indeed adores competing in North America. Apart from winning at Flushing Meadows in 2005, she spends significant time in the U.S. given her hubby is American Brian Lynch, a basketball pro in Belgium.
According to reports, Clijsters's training regime recently grew to six days a week. Three were devoted to tennis, while the remainder focused on fitness.
Davenport, married herself and probably off the tour for good now that she's expecting for a second time, disclosed last week Clijsters asked her about the logistics of life on the road with a young child.
"It all started with preparing for the gala match at Wimbledon," Clijsters told reporters in her hometown of Bree. "All pretty laid-back. I liked it that much I was onto my training schedule from my pro days, and then the hunger for more comes automatically."
Clijsters has time on her side, as she turns 26 in June. Davenport was 31 when she resurfaced in September 2007 following an 11-month absence precipitated by motherhood, and Hingis re-emerged as a 25-year-old in 2006, gone the best part of four years recovering from injuries. A positive test for cocaine sent Hingis into permanent retirement late in 2007.
News of Clijsters's return was greeted with joy by a former doubles partner.
"When Kim quit, I thought she was too good to quit," said Japanese veteran Ai Sugiyama, who won two Grand Slam titles with Clijsters. "I wasn't really surprised she decided to come back because she's still young. She's such a nice girl to be with; there are very few players you can have fun with. I'm looking forward to seeing her again. I'd love to see her baby as well."
Just how much success Clijsters is in for remains to be seen.
At first glance, though, it looks like a sizable hole exists behind the Williams sisters.
Jelena Jankovic, a great mover, too, is admittedly struggling, and fellow Serb Ana Ivanovic hasn't exactly blossomed since winning the French Open in June. Elena Dementieva can't seem to win a big one in the majors, and Russian compatriot Dinara Safina continues to wrestle with her emotions at crunch time.
Maria Sharapova sadly remains sidelined due to a shoulder injury, with more than a few suggesting her career is in jeopardy.
Henin, of course, is out of the picture entirely.
Clijsters lost six of her last eight meetings against Henin. Two came in Grand Slam finals -- Clijsters was 0-for-4 in major finals prior to 2005 -- and two more in semis.
"It's really only the Williams sisters I see that can be her two big opponents," Dewulf said. "All the other players, with all due respect, they were there when Kim was playing. There are a few youngsters, but I think Kim has a lot more game than them. If the Williams sisters are healthy and playing well then no one can beat them, but behind them there's some anarchy and chaos."
Clijsters's mental toughness is ample, Bollettieri suggests. He worries slightly about the physical component.
"Lindsay didn't get in long rallies," he said. "She's going to come up and hit the ball, and she always put the pressure on you. Clijsters hits with a bit more spin, which allows the opponent more chance to get the ball. Probably the longer the rallies go early on, unless she's in superb condition, that certainly won't be a plus for her."
Whatever happens on court, her "second career," as Clijsters called it, is a plus for the tennis world.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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