It was the face that melted a thousand (or million) hearts.
As 18-month-old Jada Clijsters Lynch pranced around the court on Arthur Ashe stadium, blonde curls swaying in the breeze and pink cheeks flush with excitement, we struggled to think of a more precious moment in the sport. Jada’s mother Kim had just returned to the tennis world in the most emphatic fashion possible, winning the US Open in her third tournament back, but that was dwarfed by the post-match celebrations.
Kim and Jada looked up in pure joy at the giant screen displaying Clijsters’ winning moment, and it was everything.
Is there a chance we’ll get to see something like that again, now that Clijsters has announced her second comeback from retirement? The 36-year-old’s youngest child Blake is two years old (Jada is now 11, and the third child Jack is five), so the possibility is very much alive.
Wait a minute though. This woman is a Hall-of-Famer who has won four Grand Slams and been ranked World No. 1, so maybe her tennis should be a bigger topic of discussion than her kids? What can I say; we humans are just suckers for emotions.
But those who’ve followed Clijsters since the start of her career would know that the Belgian has a long history of being defined by things other than her tennis.
Almost immediately after she first burst into relevance in the early 2000s, she was put in the shade by her seemingly tougher countrywoman Justine Henin. Clijsters got to the No. 1 ranking before Henin, but she was always considered second best. A series of nervy losses to Henin didn’t help; Clijsters soon came to be associated more with her big stage jitters than her game, while Henin came to be known as a multiple Slam champion who could stare down Serena Williams.
In 2005, Clijsters briefly conquered her inner demons to win her first (and long overdue) Major at the US Open. But just when we thought she was ready to wrest the throne for good, injuries struck with a vengeance. By the end of 2006, she was again reduced to a figure that evoked sympathy rather than awe, and by 2007 she was in the middle of a long-drawn-out farewell season.
The story wasn’t much different in Clijsters’ ‘second career’, which began when she announced in the summer of 2009 that she would be returning to the tour just a year after giving birth to Jada. At first it was all fun and frolic, as she won three Slams within 15 months and brought some measure of stability to the top of the women’s game. But her body couldn’t keep up with the rigors of the tour, and by 2012 she was again barreling towards retirement.
That said, Clijsters’ second coming did have one important consequence, aside from the objectively greater success it brought her, it helped shed the headcase tag for good. Her comeback coincided with (or many believe inspired) that of Henin, and this time Clijsters regularly one-upped her fierce rival in close three-setters. Clijsters had seemingly found an ultra-competitive streak in the time she spent away raising a family, and Henin had no answer to it.
The steadiness in the face of pressure during Clijsters’ second career brought into renewed focus everything that had made her game so complete and compelling in the first place – if only you were willing to look beyond the cute mother-daughter pics. The all-round solidity, the effortless power from the back of the court, the fearsome forehand, the supremely flexible movement; all of it looked much more effective and impressive now that it was winning her Slams and important matches.
But how did Clijsters turn from a mental midget (relatively speaking) to a mental powerhouse in the space of two years? Maybe it was the fact that those two years reminded her just how much she loved tennis. Maybe as she went about putting together a picture of domestic bliss with husband Brian Lynch and daughter Jada, she realized how her inner contentment was bound to make her a lot calmer on the court.
The Belgian attributes that love for the game as the reason behind her newest comeback, even as one adorable kid has turned into three. “I still love to play tennis,” Clijsters said while explaining her decision. “Whenever I’m at a Grand Slam playing the Legends, if somebody asked me ‘hey, do you want to hit some balls,’ I’m the first one to be like, ‘I’ll hit’.”
Playing on the tour is of course a lot different from being the practice partner of a Slam participant, and Clijsters fully understands that it won’t be easy. “The question is, am I capable of bringing it at a level where I would be like it to be at and where I want it to be at before I want to play at a high level of one of the best women’s sports in the world,” she said. “I don’t feel like I need to prove anything, but I want to challenge myself and I want to be strong again. This is my marathon.”
At 36, Clijsters is actually younger than Serena Williams, who is still regularly making Slam finals. And considering the Belgian’s agility and movement in the past, she should theoretically be able to play at a high enough level to at least be competitive with the current field. But it will likely not be a case of her winning a Grand Slam in her third tournament (the way it was in 2009), and the woman is rightly taking it one step at a time.
“Let’s see if I can get my body in shape to play tennis at a level where I would like it to be at, and see if it’s possible. To see, first of all, if my body is capable of even doing that.”
Clijsters has started fitness training in earnest, and says that her strength and reaction time have already improved. But a lot more work will need to be done over the next three months for her to be in some kind of match-playing shape come January.
Aside from her advanced age, what will make it tougher this time around is that she has a larger family and more responsibilities at home. Three kids are more fun than one, but three kids are also more work than one. Clijsters will play a limited schedule to start with in 2020, and insists that she wouldn’t even have considered returning if she didn’t have the leeway (by virtue of being a former No. 1 and Slam champion) to ask for wildcards to the tournaments she wanted to play.
Can Clijsters survive on today’s cut-throat WTA tour with so many distractions around her? Can her body keep up with the demands of modern tennis, which has only got more physical with time? We can’t say for sure, but what we can say is that her return will make the sport better.
The amiable, eternally-smiling Clijsters has always been one of the most popular players among her peers as well as the media and fans, and there is little doubt that she will be welcomed with open arms. But more importantly, her nuanced game coupled with her ever-burning love for the sport will make for some intriguing battles on the court – battles that will deeply enrich the tour.
The women’s game has been undergoing a revolution of sorts lately, with the variety on offer being at an all-time high. The addition of a seasoned champion like Clijsters to the mix will bring yet another unique style to the table, and also serve as an inspiration for the youngsters to emulate. Friendliness, tenacity and love for the game are all infectious things, and the current players will all stand a chance to imbibe them from Clijsters.
The woman who in 2009 became a trail-blazer for working mothers all over, is now in position to be a trail-blazer for working mothers who are also ageless. Is that too much pressure on one person’s shoulders? Maybe we should take a cue from Clijsters herself, and not raise our expectations too high. The comeback is an achievement in itself even if it doesn’t yield enormous results.
“I feel like so far it’s only given me extra energy, and a challenge, a purpose. I’ve really enjoyed it. Maybe in a few months I’ll regret it,” she said with a laugh, but it’s hard to agree with that last bit.
Whatever happens in Clijsters’ third career, we know it won’t be anything worthy of regret. Clijsters and her three kids will ensure that there’s always some adorableness to be found for us suckers for emotions, no matter what her results on the court are.