DUBAI, UAE -- A hotly anticipated first-round match between two former World No. 1 players and Grand Slam champions at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships went the way of No.9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, as the Spaniard outlasted Kim Clijsters, 6-2, 7-6(6), in the Belgian’s celebrated return to the WTA.
After the match, Muguruza called Clijsters "an incredible player" and that she was "excited to be the first one" for the Belgian to face in her comeback.
"I think she played very well, especially in the second set at the end," Muguruza continued. "It was very tight. So, yeah, I think it was a fun match to play."
Four-time Grand Slam champion Clijsters is back on tour for the first time since the 2012 US Open, and during her hiatus of over seven years, the Belgian gave birth to her second and third child, as well as was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017. The Belgian has now marked her return to professional tennis with her Dubai debut.
"I had a good feeling out there," Clijsters said, after the match. "I do feel a little bit of-- I'm not going to say relief, but a feeling of the pace I can handle. "
"Second set, I felt I was really in the match," Clijsters added. "I felt like for a while I was dominating some of the points. I think that's a good feeling to have, knowing the way I started the first set and then the way I was able to get back into that second set, with the type of tennis I played, it's something that is the positive about this match. I'll take that with me for the next matches."
Two-time Grand Slam champion Muguruza, though, continues to enjoy an incredible start to 2020, where she has posted three quarterfinal-or-better results thus far, including a run to her fourth Grand Slam final at the Australian Open, where she beat three Top 10 players. Since her 2016 title run at Roland Garros, Muguruza has gone 21-10 against Grand Slam champions.
"I was very happy with the start of the year because normally it's a little bit tough," said Muguruza. "Very excited to go that far, to get those matches in my belt."
The Spaniard is a two-time semifinalist in Dubai, having reached the final four in 2015 and 2018. In her first-ever meeting with Clijsters, Muguruza held off the Belgian's furious second-set comeback to triumph in 97 minutes of play. Muguruza had 19 winners to Clijsters' 15, and the Spaniard was helped along by winning nearly three-quarters of points off of her first serve.
"I think this is just special because I didn't know how [Clijsters was] going to play," said Muguruza. "I know she can play incredible. She did at some point play incredible level. Just the special feeling. I haven't seen her play in so long, so it's like, 'Okay, what's going to happen?'"
"I'm sure she's going to get better and better, for sure, give us a lot of trouble," Muguruza stated.
Muguruza will now face either Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine or Russian qualifier Veronika Kudermetova in the second round of the Premier-level event.
A mammoth first game opened the encounter as the two major-winning legends went toe to toe off the ground, but Muguruza eventually took control of the game, converting her third break point after a rally overhead forced a long error from the Belgian.
As the set progressed, the Muguruza serve became a force to be reckoned with, as she eased to service holds to capitalize on her early advantage. Clijsters, though, stayed with the World No.16, finding powerful groundstrokes as she worked her way into the clash, including a fierce forehand winner to fend off a break point at 3-1.
Nevertheless, Muguruza continued to press the Belgian, earning a second break at 5-2. Serving for the set, the Spaniard fired three unforced errors to give Clijsters triple break point and a chance to extend the opening frame. However, Muguruza pulled five superb serves in a row out of her pocket, zipping from a dire predicament to a one-set lead in the blink of an eye.
Muguruza cruised ahead in the second set, earning a 3-0, double-break lead after a game which featured three of Clijsters’s ten double faults. However, the Belgian would not succumb so quickly, and garnered her first break of the match in the very next game, crushing a forehand winner to take Muguruza’s serve at love and pull to 3-1.
The Clijsters game locked into vintage mode, as her defense and flexibility matched her power off the ground, while the Muguruza miscues started to increase. After a rally backhand by the Spaniard found the net, Clijsters had leveled the set at 4-4, completely erasing the Muguruza second-set advantage.
The Belgian used powerful forehands and serves to erase two break points at 4-4, as the duo moved inexorably into a pivotal second-set tiebreak. A double fault by Muguruza gave Clijsters an early 2-0 lead in the breaker, but suddenly, Muguruza’s groundstrokes caught fire, as the Australian Open finalist cracked shots from both wings to reel off four straight points.
An ace gave Muguruza her first match point at 6-5, but she hit a backhand long as the players changed ends once more at 6-6. There, a Muguruza volley forced an error, giving the Spaniard a second match point, and on that occasion, the No.9 seed took it, after one final strong serve.