Clijsters embracing the Legends life

  • Suzi Petkovski

Jada Lynch danced around the US Open trophy as a tousle-haired toddler when her mum Kim Clijsters won at Flushing Meadows in 2009. These days, not so much.

“She is not a big fan of tennis,” confesses former No.1 Clijsters, now a mother of three, with an almost apologetic laugh. “She loves basketball. We [went] to see Melbourne United play, went to some of their practice games. She loves it. I’m splitting my time between basketball for her and tennis stuff for myself.”

So husband Brian Lynch, a former basketballer, has won over their first born. But what about their boys, Jack and Blake? Does the four-time major winner have any influence there?

“We’ll see,” she demurs.

Na Li and Kim Clijsters
Clijsters defeated Li Na in the AO 2011 final

But Jada, 11 next month, will most definitely not be following her mum onto the tennis tour.

“It was very clear with Jada there was no interest. The effort of her practices in tennis and basketball was night and day.”

Clijsters, still a youthful 35, was the first mother to win a major since Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980. But the speedy, athletic Belgian is unique in winning more Grand Slam titles after children than before (3-1).

Instantly adopted and adored as ‘Aussie Kim’, she was a finalist at Melbourne Park in 2004 and champion in 2011 in a watershed final over Li Na, who broke new ground as the first Asian to play for a Grand Slam title. 

Eight years on from their riveting clash, Clijsters and Li, two of the most beloved champions at Melbourne Park, reunited on the same side of the net for the Legends event.

You get to go to dinner together, spend time just hanging around and talking, which rarely happens when you’re all on tour
Clijsters is enjoying the more relaxed pace of Legends tennis life

“It was great, a lot of fun,” Clijsters says of teaming with Li. “For some reason we had a really good connection always, even when we were rivals on tour. To be able to step out [on court] together and we practised [beforehand], and just talked family life and life at home, after life on tour, was just nice to hear.”

Clijsters was always the most social of champions, interested in knowing the person behind the player. Nothing has changed.

“That’s actually one of the things that I really like about playing these Legends tournaments: you get to do things together. You get to go to dinner together, spend time just hanging around and talking, which rarely happens when you’re all on tour.”

Na Li and Kim Clijsters
Clijsters and Li have formed a potent Legends combo at Melbourne Park

Clijsters and Li now have five children between them: with Li a mum to daughter Alisa, 4, and son Sapajou, 2. Their chat has been all parenting tales and tips rather than tennis war stories.

“When we walk from the locker room on the court, we didn’t talk about tennis,” confirms Li. “We talk about our children, how the husband is. Does he help or not?”

“It’s fun to hear what her life is like in China now and how I live at home,” relates Clijsters, who stood with 18 fellow Hall of Famers in Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday night in a ceremony honouring 2009 inductees Li and Mary Pierce (whom Clijsters defeated in her first major win at the 2005 US Open).

“It’s nice to compare things: school systems, different cultures, what to pack for lunch. I mean, we’ve talked about everything!

“It’s the same with [fellow mums] Lindsay [Davenport, champion here in 2000] and Barbara Schett.”

Before her premature first retirement at 23, worn out by injury and constant travel, Clijsters fantasised about a settled domestic life. Trips to the supermarket were among the simple housewifely pleasures she looked forward to – inducing eye-rolls among some of the working mothers in the press room. Now that she has a happy home life, Clijsters appreciates the tennis sisterhood more than ever.

“It’s nice to share with women who have a lot of things in common with you [from] a life on tour for many years,” she notes. “It’s something I don’t have in common with anybody when I’m in Belgium. You don’t really have that connection with anybody else at the school where my kids go.”

The 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens said during her run to the fourth round of AO2019 that she feels fortunate to be playing in an era of so many different champions, her only regret never playing Clijsters.

For Clijsters, the idol was 22-time Grand Slammer Steffi Graf. She recalls in vivid detail their one meeting at Wimbledon 1999, when she was a 16-year-old qualifier. “I had the luxury of playing her in my first Wimbledon and it was her last. I lost to her in the fourth round. And it was obviously very emotional for me to play Steffi, who I looked up to, who I pretended to be, [while] playing in my parents’ driveway.

“An incredible feeling to be a part of when she was close to retiring and me just starting. To see what she was like in the locker room, the media room, on the practice court. It was a big inspiration to my tennis career.”

Another, less formal Wimbledon meeting with Graf revived her career and remade her legacy. Clijsters was two years retired with 15-month-old Jada was she was invited to take part in an exhibition on Centre Court in May 2009 to mark Wimbledon’s new retractable roof.

Her competitor’s pride kicked in and Clijsters trained to get in shape for the event. She beat Graf 6-4 and had so much fun (also winning the mixed with Tim Henman over Graf and husband Andre Agassi) that she packed up the racquet and baby bags and returned to the tour. Not four months later she was the US Open champion.

Steffi Graf
Clijsters' idol, German superstar Steffi Graf

But how very Kim Clijsters that it was a social game rather than big money or prestige that lured her back to tennis. Clijsters still sounds like a fangirl when she says of Graf, who turns 50 in June: “I’ve seen some of her videos practising in Vegas and she still has better footwork than a lot of players on tour now, which is incredible.”

Of the game’s evolution since she stepped away after the 2012 US Open, Clijsters is wary of too much change.

“To me there’s a fine line between keeping our tradition and adding new stuff,” she says. “I’m not one for on-court coaching. OK, Hawk-Eye I think is something that’s beneficial to fair play on the court, but I think on-court coaching [being considered at the Grand Slams] is not necessary at all. I’m against that.

“But it’s tough: you have to find the balance between keeping the tradition of our sport, the roots, and still keep it up-to-date for younger generations.”

Looking over the bustling Melbourne Park precinct from the media terrace, Clijsters appreciates the growth since her playing days: “Talk about innovations, I think here they have raised the bar for all the other Grand Slams.”