Saturday, March 06, 2010

Kim Clijsters on comebacks, Laureus and motherhood

In the week that Martina Navratilova recalled the “heroic performance” of Kim Clijsters in winning the U.S. Open last year, the charming Belgian made time for an altogether more low-key performance back in the United States.

She was runner up to Venus Williams in the Billie Jean King Cup exhibition tournament in New York this week. But Clijsters’ first return to competition since her untimely exit from the Australian Open just over a month back is not the performance in question.

Rather, it is the relaxed 45 or so minutes she spent chatting with a handful of journalists to mark her nomination in the prestigious Laureus World Sports Awards: the sporting "Oscars."

Clijsters is one of six nominees in the Laureus World Comeback of the Year category. It’s her third nomination: in 2002 she made the “Breakthrough” shortlist; in 2006 it was the “World Sportswoman” category.

She hopes it’s third time lucky, but knows she is up against tough competition. Her favorite, should she not win herself, is Lance Armstrong. She pointed out that she grew up in cycling-addicted Belgium and is a huge admirer of the American Tour de France hero. Her husband, though, will be cheering on American football star Brett Favre—though presumably not in preference to his wife!

The story of Clijsters’ comeback is, of course, close to fairytale proportions. In 2007, she suddenly walked away, while world No. 4, from what was shaping up to be a highly successful season. A couple of months later she was married, and within a year she had a daughter.

Then, still only 26, she delighted a Wimbledon crowd by taking to the Centre Court opposite Steffi Graf to celebrate the completion of its new roof.

It was clear from her appearance and her game that she was in very fine fettle and, sure enough, she made her professional comeback a couple of months later on the hard courts of north America.

The rest, as they say, is history. She won the third tournament she played: the U.S. Open.

Clijsters is quick to describe this return as a second career rather than comeback, and to attribute her success to the different person she became during her break.

“I feel I am more mature. I’ve been able to sit back and think about things…and have a different perspective. I get disappointed when I lose, of course, but now I know there will be another day.”

How did she feel, then, to leave this year’s Australian Open in the way she did: with a disappointing 6-0, 6-1 loss to Nadia Petrova?

“It was very frustrating. I was in shock when I spoke to the press. But there are frustrating things about sport, and also very exciting things.”

She was determined not to leave Australia in a negative frame of mind. Instead, she and her family took time to enjoy being a tourist, before heading back to Belgium for fresh training.

And that illustrates the contrast between her first career with the second.

“Things are totally different now. Before, everything was phased around you. Now when I come home from practice, I have to make sure I’m home for lunch, pick up food from the supermarket, spend time with Jada.”

She has decided on a more streamlined tennis schedule commensurate with her full personal schedule.

“I used to play a lot of events and would get some injuries. Now I’ve cut back a bit, so that I can keep strong and healthy. I’ve been able to take time off since Australia so I can get physically strong, and I am more hungry when I do play. I can peak at the right moments.”

She’s grateful for the tools at her disposal, too. She may be new to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, but she’s using them to her advantage. “They help me stay in touch without losing too much time!”

Clijsters has always been an open and natural interviewee. She retains that disarming quality when asked about coping with motherhood.

“I need a couple more hours of rest than I used to. Going back to my daughter, you get a little more tired than when you just focus on tennis. Luckily, I’m not the type of person who needs six or seven hours a day to feel good on the court. I’m lucky that I can maintain my strength on around two hours of practice a day.”

She’s just as relaxed at the prospect of a replay of her Roland Garros rivalry with Justine Henin. The two Belgians have one of the closest rivalries of recent times: Clijsters is currently down 11 games to 12 in their head-to-heads.

At Roland Garros, they have met in two semifinals and one final and Henin, queen of the clay, won on the last two occasions. But Clijsters is up for a rematch.

“If Justine and I could play again in a final or semifinal, it would be great—but tough! And being close to Belgium makes it especially good for the fans.”

She is making a conscious effort to give herself time after Miami to prepare for the clay: “I want to have time to adjust to new surfaces and make sure my body doesn’t have to go through dramatic changes.”

She freely admits, though, that the hard courts are probably her favorite, and believes that her great record at, for example, the forthcoming Indian Wells helped make her comeback to the American hard courts last year such a success.

Indeed, she saw her triumph in the 2009 U.S. Open as a belated opportunity to defend her 2005 title. She had made the semifinals in all three of the other Slams in 2006, before being forced out of competition in the late summer with a wrist injury. She is clearly pleased to have put that one right.

Talk of her many successes in North America brought the diplomatic side of Clijsters to the fore as she touched on her eventful meetings with Serena Williams at Indian Wells in 2001 and at Flushing Meadows in 2009.

“People talk to me all the time about it. Three-quarters of the press conference [after the U.S. Open final] was about it. We’re way past that. Serena has apologised and to me there’s nothing more to say…Obviously I would like to play against the best players and it would be good to have Venus and Serena back in Indian Wells.”

As the conversation turned back to the Laureus Awards, Clijsters mused on why this international, multi-sports competition had seen so many tennis successes. Indeed, tennis has won more Laureus awards in the competition’s 11-year history than any other sport.

Tennis is open to a lot of ages and is a sport that has big events throughout the year and all over the world. And the ITF does a good job in promoting it.”

She highlighted, too, that tennis is going through a golden period, with great rivalries and champions on both sides.

“Obviously you have the battles between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Novak Djokovic, and now Andy Murray. It makes for a lot of interesting matches. And on the women’s side, with me and Justine back, and Serena and Venus still playing strongly, it is appealing to a lot of fans.”

Does she think that anyone will win the tennis Grand Slam this year—or any time soon? She’s doubtful, though would never bet against Federer or Williams pulling it off. She feels it has now become harder to achieve because players are so specialised in particular types of game and on particular surfaces.

Clijsters and her fellow Laureus nominees have been selected by a panel of sports editors, writers, and broadcasters from over 120 countries. The Laureus World Sports Academy, made up of 46 of the world’s greatest sportsmen and sportswomen, will now vote to select the winners.

Amongst them is Navratilova, clearly as big an admirer of Clijsters as are the media and the fans.

“Coming back to the circuit demands a lot of persistence already. To then win a Grand Slam pretty soon after that is a heroic performance. Kim definitely deserves this nomination.”

Clijsters will be preparing for her Indian Wells campaign when the Awards are announced at a gala ceremony in Abu Dhabi next week. She may not be there in person, but her achievements, and her reputation as one of the most likeable women in sport, go before her.

There’s little doubt she would be a very popular winner, whether it’s that Laureus award or her third Indian Wells title. Perhaps it will be both.


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