DUBAI, UAE - With preparations winding down ahead of her first professional tennis match in over seven years, Kim Clijsters almost looks like she’s never left.
All eyes have been on the former World No.1 since she announced a surprise return to the tour last fall. At 36 years old and with four Grand Slam singles trophies to her name, there’s not much the Belgian has left to achieve.
But that’s not what she’s doing this for, Clijsters told press at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
“It was a feeling that I had inside, a feeling that I had inside for a little while,” she said, speaking to a packed room of journalists during WTA All-Access Hour in Dubai.
“Kind of talked to a few people. Once in a while that feeling would go away when I was home with the kids. A couple times it would come back. It got stronger and stronger.
“I talked to my husband. He was like, ‘Why not? Stop worrying about why and ask yourself why not.’ He made a very good point. I was like, All right. Yeah, why not?
“There is no 'why not'. Why wouldn't I do it?”
That’s not to say that it was an breezy journey back to the game. Clijsters was the first to admit that the process of getting back to professional match fitness has been difficult, especially with the lengthy interval since her last competition. (During those seven years away, the Belgian gave birth to her second and third children, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.) She had to delay her comeback - originally scheduled for January - due to an injury, but assured press that she's ready to compete.
“I've enjoyed the challenge," Clijsters said. "I've enjoyed it since the day I've decided to go for it. It's been with ups and downs.
“Being 36 years old, you know that's how it's been for your whole career. It is with ups and downs. It's how you mentally stay through it, how strong you stay through those kind of situations.
“It's been an interesting but very challenging process that I'm really enjoying.”
She will have to hit the ground running in Dubai, where she’s set to contest her first match in over seven years on Monday against Garbiñe Muguruza. The Spaniard is coming off a thrilling run to the Australian Open final, looking her vintage best after a sluggish 2019 season.
“I've seen Muguruza play many matches in the last few years, so I have a little bit of an idea,” Clijsters said. “Obviously I was a little curious to see who it was going to be. I don't think it really matters in my situation right now.
“I still feel like I have a lot of things that I want to focus on myself, want to learn, start to get a feel for things again mentally, physically, emotionally, how I'm going to feel when I'm out there.”
To prepare, Clijsters hit the Dubai practice courts with fellow former No.1 Simona Halep - who told press that the Belgian is “playing really well” - and has been seen putting in the long hours on Centre Court.
No stranger to comebacks, Clijsters first stepped away from the sport in 2007 at the age of 23 as injuries took their toll. She spent two years in retirement, during which she gave birth to her oldest daughter Jada, but she soon found herself back on the tennis courts after being invited to compete at an exhibition match at Wimbledon. The trip sparked what would later become her “second career”, returning to the tour in 2009 and right away lifting back-to-back US Open trophies.
But despite her previous success, Clijsters isn’t putting the pressure on herself to see big results straight away.
“I have expectations. I don't think they're the expectations [you guys] would like to hear from me. They're not result related or ranking related. They're more individually for myself,” Clijsters said.
“It's getting a feeling of how I want to play out there,” she added. “That's the expectation or the goal I'm trying to get to. I have moments now where in practice, ‘This is it, this is how I want to play.’ I just have to be able to do it in matches now.
“We'll see if I'm capable of doing that. I'm sure it will take time.”
Kim Clijsters will kick off her run at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships against No.9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza during Monday’s first-round action. She is also set to compete in Monterrey and Indian Wells later in the season.