Clijsters 2009: Coming back stronger

  • Matt Trollope

In the space of just three tournaments during a magical month, Kim Clijsters went from unranked, unknown quantity to Grand Slam champion.

The Belgian, who had retired in 2007 and become a mother the following year, returned to tennis in the most emphatic way possible with victory at the US Open in 2009.

This achievement saw her become the first mother in 29 years to win a major singles title, and the first ever wildcard to do so.   

It was, quite simply, an extraordinary comeback.

To clarify, Clijsters wasn’t entirely an unknown quantity. She was already a major champion – having hoisted the trophy four years earlier at the same tournament – and a former world No.1. 

“I can't believe this happened. It still seems so surreal."
Kim Clijsters

When she left the sport in May 2007, aged just 23, she was still ranked No.4 and only a few months earlier had reached the Australian Open semifinals.

“The recurring injuries, having difficulty in getting out of bed in the morning, needing about an hour to get all the muscles warmed up, the demanding preparations of the marriage with (fiancé) Brian (Lynch) … It all makes things a bit difficult to keep on going,” Clijsters explained at the time.

"It is time for a new life. Time for marriage. Time for children?"

Her daughter Jada was born in February 2008. Yet just over one year later, Clijsters announced she would return to the tour.

She was an unknown quantity because it was unclear how she would fare in her return, given she had not played competitive tennis in more than two years and had gone through childbirth.

Clijsters revealed her comeback inspiration stemmed from a Wimbledon exhibition event in May 2009, designed to test the new Centre Court roof ahead of that year’s Championships.

Kim Clijsters (R) plays mixed doubles with Tim Henman at the Wimbledon Centre Court roof test event in May 2009. (Getty Images)

"Preparing for the gala match at Wimbledon, I liked it that much I was on to my training schedule from my pro days and then the hunger for more comes automatically,” she said.

"I am looking at this as a second career, not as a comeback, as I am now in a situation where not everything revolves around tennis 24 hours a day.

“I have asked for wildcards for Cincinnati, Toronto and the US Open, that's all for the moment. I want to see if I can still do it."

It quickly became apparent that she could.

In her first match back at Cincinnati, in August 2009, Clijsters drew 13th-ranked Marion Bartoli – and dismissed the Frenchwoman in straight sets.

“I felt pretty comfortable out there. Didn't feel like much changed,” Clijsters assessed.

Kim Clijsters (L) meets Marion Bartoli at net after beating the 12th seed in straight sets in her opening match at the WTA tournament in Cincinnati. (Getty Images)

Clijsters went on to reach the quarterfinals, beating two more top 20 players – Patty Schnyder and world No.6 Svetlana Kuznetsova – along the way. 

The following week in Toronto, she upset world No.9 Victoria Azarenka before fourth-ranked Jelena Jankovic ultimately stopped her in the third round – albeit 7-5 in the third set.

Both the speed at which Clijsters had attained this competitive level, and the calibre of opponents she was beating, were incredible.

But what she did at the US Open overshadowed all of that.

Clijsters dropped just two sets en route to her second major title, playing with a devastating combination of athleticism, power, consistency and psychological freedom during a fabulous fortnight at Flushing Meadows.

Five of her seven victims – Bartoli (again), Venus Williams, Li Na, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki – were at the time, or would become, Grand Slam champions themselves.

Kim Clijsters reacts after defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the 2009 US Open final. (Getty Images)

Clijsters became one of the few players in history to beat both Venus and Serena at the same tournament, a feat even more impressive considering the sisters were ranked No.3 and No.2 at the time.

Clijsters slammed an overhead winner on championship point to dismiss Wozniacki 7-5 6-3, completing the unlikeliest of triumphs. 

“I can't believe this happened,” she said. 

“It still seems so surreal … because it wasn't in the plan. I just wanted to get a feel for it all over again, play a Grand Slam so that to start the next year I didn't have to go through all the new experiences over.

“But it means the world, and I'm just so glad that I am able to share it with my husband … and with our daughter, of course, is the greatest thing ever.”

Kim Clijsters celebrates on court with daughter Jada after winning the 2009 US Open. (Getty Images)

In her “second career”, Clijsters was arguably even more successful than during her first.

She defended her US Open crown in 2010, won her fourth major singles title at Australian Open 2011, and briefly returned to world No.1 in February 2011.