Kim Clijsters will breathe a welcome breath of fresh air into a stagnating women's tennis game this week as the charismatic Belgian takes the first tentative steps on a possibly long comeback trail at the Cincinnati Open. The former world No 1 is hoping to take a leaf out of the book of another illustrious tennis mum, Lindsay Davenport, who won two of the first three tournaments she played on returning to the professional circuit after giving birth to baby boy Jagger in June 2007.
It is a tall order because the unranked Clijsters has been given a tough wild card start to what she calls her "second career" having drawn the buoyant Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli, the conqueror of Venus Williams in the recent final of the Stanford Bank Classic. Clijsters, out of action for more than two years as she prepared for the arrival of baby daughter Jada 18 months ago, is raring to go again even if her comeback is initially limited to a single match.
At 26, five years younger than Davenport was on her return, Clijsters has time on her side as she aims to reclaim top-10 status and seeks to follow in the footsteps of famous Australians Margaret Court and Evonne Cawley by winning a grand slam in motherhood. "I've been practising for a long time now and I am anxious to start," said Clijsters, who won the US Open four years ago and will be hoping to turn back the years at the end this month. Before that she will give herself a three-tournament test run starting tomorrow.
"It was really necessary to get back into shape but now I've been there for a while and I want to play matches. I look forward to playing. "I want to take these three tournaments and see where am I at and find out what do I need to work on in the off-season. "Although I feel good in practice, that doesn't mean it's necessarily going to be that way in matches. I want to get a feel for it all over again and re-evaluate my game and my physical condition and go from there."
Before her retirement, Clijsters had developed a strong rivalry for world supremacy with her Belgian compatriot Justine Henin. After Henin quit the game last year, Clijsters rejoins a tour which has seen a cluster of Eastern Europeans emulate her in recent months, none of them convincingly. Russia's Maria Sharapova briefly looked like being a worthy successor to Henin's throne until being struck down by a serious shoulder injury a year ago.
Sharapova, like the Belgian, is now keen to make up for lost time and is moving in the right direction in advance of the US Open, despite her serve falling apart in the semi-final loss to Italian Flavia Pennetta in the semi-finals of the LA Championships. Sharapova is now six tournaments into her comeback after shoulder surgery and has been protecting her serving arm throughout that time. Once she feels confident enough to go for broke on what used to be a penetrative delivery, her punishing ground strokes look good enough for her to make the top 10 again.
"You can see her lack of faith in the serve is taking its toll on other parts of her game," Robert Lansdorp, Sharapova's former coach, said after Sharapova's exit. Even the triumphant Pennetta was sympathetic. "Of course she's got to be frustrated," said the Italian. "She used to be one of the best servers on the tour, and now she has some problem with the serve." Clijsters too realises what she is up against. "In tennis, it's very important that you're very stable there, the hips and the core," she said. "With the pregnancy, that's something that was totally gone."