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Baby On Board

Two all-time greats have won Grand Slam titles as mothers. Will Kim Clijsters be next?

Published August 05, 2009 05:01

Baby On Board
Evonne Goolagong Cawley

LONDON, England - Next week former world No.1 Kim Clijsters makes her Sony Ericsson WTA Tour comeback, at the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open in Cincinnati. As anyone who has seen the Belgian star in action at various exhibitions in recent months knows, the 26-year-old's game seems to be in rude health, just over two years since her abrupt retirement. The difference now is that Clijsters is a mother to 18-month-old Jada, bringing a whole new set of logistical challenges and emotional priorities as she launches the second phase of her career.

But although they are rare - fewer than a dozen mothers have graced the circuit in the Open era - moms on Tour are nothing new. So, while former world No.1s Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Steffi Graf and Aranxta Sánchez-Vicario all waited until they had hung up their racquets for good before starting families, in contemplating her comeback, Clijsters has been able to call on another member of that exclusive club for advice: three-time Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport.

Famously, Davenport mounted a highly successful comeback after the birth of her son Jagger in June 2007. Then aged 31, she won two of the first three events she contested, at Bali and Québec City later the same year, and then captured Auckland in January 2008. A fourth title came at Memphis a couple of months later, taking her career tally to 55, and by the end of the year she was back in the Top 25, at one point climbing as high as No.21.

"I think I missed a lot of the goals and the drive that you have every day," Davenport reflected during the 2008 Australian Open. "I followed what felt right and felt natural and really haven't looked back. It's been enjoyable every step of the way. I don't regret anything." It seemed that more was to come but, just days after her participation in the 2009 Australian Open had been confirmed, Davenport announced a happy turnaround: she was pregnant with her second child. Since giving birth to daughter Lauren in June, Davenport, now 33, hasn't indicated whether a second comeback is on the cards.

Better Than Ever?

Given the heights the Californian scaled in her career the first time around, it was always going to be tough for Davenport to collect major titles again, but some moms do return to action better than ever.

Among the current crop of players, Exhibit A is Austria's Sybille Bammer. Now 29, Bammer gave birth to daughter Tina in 2001, when she was 21. Her relative youth at the time was surely a factor, but the left-hander from Linz has only improved with age, winning her first title at Pattaya City in early 2007, attaining her career-high ranking of No.19 in December the same year, reaching her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the 2008 US Open - and collecting her second title at Prague just a few weeks ago.

Bammer was the first mom to crack the Top 30 after her return since Peru's Laura Arraya Gildemeister, who reached a career high of No.14 and achieved her best Grand Slam result - a quarterfinal run at Wimbledon in 1991 - post motherhood. Another Latin American player, Paraguay's Rosanna de los Ríos reached the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2000 and the semis at two Tour events in 2001, and returned to the Top 60 after the birth of her daughter Ana Paula in 1997. Just last month she reached the quarters at Portoroz.

There is, of course, no guarantee of maternal success. France's Sandrine Testud, who won three Tour titles, reached two Grand Slam quarterfinals and was ranked as high as No.9 in 2000, made a brief return to the Tour in 2004 after giving birth, but won just one Tour-level match. Likewise Romania's Ruxandra Dragomir-Ilie, who reached a career high of No.15 in 1997 and had won four Tour titles before initially retiring in 2001, was unable to recapture her form after the arrival of son Filip.

One mom-to-watch at the moment is Lindsay Lee-Waters, who was ranked No.33 in 1996. The American's daughter Sevyn was born in 2001 and she later had a son, Heath, in 2006. One of the most successful ITF Circuit players of all time and now aged 32, Lee-Waters is still trying to crack the Top 175 this time around. But she won another ITF title earlier this year at Charlottesville, and came within one win of qualifying for Wimbledon. 

Middle-Aged Renaissance

Compared to Davenport, who had already hit the Big 3-0 when she launched her post-natal comeback, Clijsters has time on her side. Four of the current Top 10, and eight of the Top 20, are older than the Belgian. Assuming she remains healthy - and cumulative injuries certainly played a part in her initial decision to step away from the game - there are many who think she has a real shot at getting close to her retirement ranking of No.4 - if not higher.

For inspiration, Clijsters can turn to two Australians who, decades on, still tower as the most successful moms in tennis history: Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

Court retired after Wimbledon in 1966 and returned to tennis in 1968. She gave birth to her first child, Daniel, in March 1972. She returned to tennis later that year and would win the 1973 US Open. Her second child, Marika, was born in 1974. She started playing again - reaching the semifinals at 1975 Wimbledon and quarters of the 1975 Australian Open and 1975 US Open before retiring permanently in 1977 after learning she was expecting her third of four children.

For her part, Goolagong won several titles as a parent. After the birth of her first child, daughter Kelly, in 1976, she returned to capture the 1980 Wimbledon singles title as a 29-year-old, defeating Austin in the semis and Evert in the final to become the first mother to win at the All England Club in 66 years - nine long years after her first Wimbledon title in 1971.

"When I was 19, I didn't appreciate it," Goolagong admitted to Sports Illustrated in 1998. "But in '80, I had a child and nobody expected much. That was amazingly sweet."

Expectations are already mounting for Clijsters who, in fact, used to run into Goolagong when she dated Lleyton Hewitt earlier in the decade, but recently said that only now does she truly appreciate the Aussie icon's achievements. "I never thought that much of it until I had a baby myself," Clijsters said. "You kind of get a higher sense of respect in a situation like that."

Those who think Clijsters can emulate the Australian include none other than Davenport: "I think she'll be the first mom since Goolagong to win a major."

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