Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 28 May 2020

Kim Clijsters makes a big statement despite defeat to Garbine Muguruza at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Muguruza wins 6-2, 7-6 in a little more than one-and-a-half hours on Monday

Even after seven-and-a-half years away, and against a more-than-formidable foe, Kim Clijsters proved some of the old magic has yet to dim.

The former world No 1, a four-time singles grand slam champion, made her long-awaited comeback to competition on Monday, an occasion enough in itself that Monday night of the women’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships felt like the only place to be.

Ultimately, and much to the disappointment of the considerable gathering that encircled Centre Court, Clijsters couldn’t mastermind a win to match the magnitude of the moment.

The Belgian battled admirably – as if that was ever in doubt – but lost in straight sets to Garbine Muguruza. That, of course, was no great embarrassment.

After all, the Spaniard is herself a two-time grand slam winner. Last month, she announced a mini-comeback of sorts, too, finally finding form to finish runner-up at the Australian Open.

So Muguruza got the anticipated victory. She won 6-2, 7-6 in a little more than one-and-a-half hours, advancing to the second round.

Still, and she could hardly begrudge the crowd, Clijsters departed as she had entered: to rapturous applause. Heading for the exit, and having shown that her backbone remains as serious a weapon as her backhand, the mum of three waved to the spectators, disappearing out of sight with a thumb in the air.

Probably pleased to simply progress, even Muguruza later described the occasion as “special”.

“Exciting,” she said. “I've seen her play when I was starting on the tour. She's an incredible player. Excited to be the first one on her third comeback, I think. She played very well, especially in the second set at the end. It was very tight. So, yeah, it was a fun match to play.”

At times, Clijsters seemed to be enjoying the heat of battle as well. Having last played competitive singles in August 2012, at the US Open, she had been slated to return to court in Melbourne. However, a knee problem put paid to that.

Broken in her opening game in Dubai – her tournament debut – five double faults contributed to a first-set loss, although Muguruza did have to save two break points to eventually take it in 32 minutes.

In the second, Clijsters was broken again, twice, to slip 3-0 down. But, true to former form, she rallied superbly to move 5-4 up. Fist pumps punctuated points won, right up until the tie-break, when she saved a first match point before Muguruza closed out the match.

No doubt, her run to the final in Australia had helped.

“Actually, didn't take that many days off as maybe sometimes I would,” Muguruza said. “I started training right away. It's a great feeling.

“Of course, there is this final match that I know the difference between winning and not winning. For sure, it is very important. But I was very happy with the start of the year because normally it's a little bit tough; a few injuries in the last years. Very excited to go that far, to get those matches under my belt.”

After the final defeat to Sofia Kenin in Australia, Muguruza had been asked why her demeanour in front of the media had changed. Previously happy to engage, she was viewed to have grown weary of the press, chiefly because of what she perceived to be unfair criticism during her struggles.

The topic revisited on Monday, Muguruza responded: “I think I just learned a little bit how everything works more. I felt like every athlete struggles. I felt zero support when the hard times are there.

“It's normal; everybody has it. But I felt like 'we love you today because you won and tomorrow we hate you because you lost'. It was such a crazy balance that I felt like, ‘OK, I'm probably less excited just to share more’.

“I'm not thinking too much about it. I'm normal. I'm a little bit in my own bubble.”

Existing in that bubble presumably contributed to her combating Clijsters. Yet, ominously for everyone else, Muguruza confirmed what some had suggested, but not necessarily expected.

“She has the tennis there,” she said of her opponent. “I'm sure she's going to get better and better, for sure give us a lot of trouble.

“She played really well after all these years; a mom, there's so many stuff.”

Updated: February 17, 2020 10:30 PM

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