Kim Clijsters is ready to face the challenge of being back on the tennis court, over seven years since she last played a competitive match. And having chosen to begin her comeback at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships because of the high level of competition it offers, she has been drawn to face recent Australian Open finalist and former two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza.
“Obviously I was a little curious to see who it (her first opponent) was going to be,” she said as the tournament gets underway. “I don’t think it really matters in my situation right now. I still feel like I have a lot of things that I want to focus on myself, want to learn, start to get a feel for things again mentally, physically, emotionally, how I’m going to feel when I’m out there. So, yeah, I think that was my main concern or goal, is to get a hang of those kind of situations a little bit without having to worry too much.
“I’ve been practicing well. It’s important to now try to put whatever is going well in practice into a match and see how I will deal with being under pressure, nerves, those kind of things. That’s something that I haven’t done yet.”
For Kim it is a case of once a competitor, always a competitor. And that means although she is now a mother of three her love for the game has never gone away. And that is why she is back on the WTA Tour once more.
“It was a feeling that I had inside, a feeling that I had inside for a little while. Kind of talked to a few people. Once in a while that feeling would go away when I was home with the kids. A couple times it would come back. It got stronger and stronger. I talked to my husband. He was like, ‘Why not?’ I was like, ‘All right. Yeah, why not?’ Why wouldn’t I do it?
“I’ve enjoyed the challenge. I’ve enjoyed it since the day I’ve decided to go for it. It’s been with ups and downs. Being 36 years old, you know that’s how it’s been for your whole career. It is with ups and downs. It’s how you mentally stay through it, how strong you stay through those kind of situations. It’s all easy when it goes well, when you don’t have to worry about too many things. When things don’t go well, that’s obviously when you have to be committed and focused. I’ve been doing that. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been an interesting but very challenging process that I’m really enjoying.
“I haven’t had that feeling of being scared. So far it’s still a motivation, yeah. There have been moments where I feel like I need to do this better, but it’s never a doubt that I can’t do it anymore. That’s one of the reasons why I also decided to come back, is because that belief somewhat was still there.
“I have expectations. They’re not result related or ranking related. They’re more individually for myself. It’s getting a feeling of how I want to play out there. That’s the expectation or the goal I’m trying to get to. I have moments now where in practice, ‘This is it, this is how I want to play’. I just have to be able to do it in matches now. We’ll see if I’m capable of doing that. I’m sure it will take time. But, yeah, like I said before, I’m kind of ready. I’m done with practicing. I want to be able to, yeah, put in the work in my matches.”
Clijsters is part of a fascinating draw featuring many of the best players in the world, including fifth-ranked 2019 champion Belinda Bencic. Does she feel she is under pressure to defend her title?
“No, not at all,” she said. “I don’t really get why all of the people think that success and then after playing it’s pressure. For me, it’s not. It’s a privilege. I won here last year, so I can only play great again here. That’s how I see it. I think it’s all about the mentality.”
Elina Svitolina knows what it like to successfully defend her title in Dubai, winning in 2017 and 2018. Like Bencic, she feels no pressure here.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “For me it’s more confidence because I played well here. I won this tournament twice, so definitely I did something right before. I just have to try to find the way to get into the same routines and playing well. It’s more confidence than pressure.”
Simona Halep is the 2015 champion and seeded number one this week, and she couldn’t be happier to be in one of her favourite cities.
“I feel great to be back in Dubai. I did a pre-season here. Actually I can get used to this city. It’s amazing here. I’m here just to give my best every day and we will see how far I can go. Definitely I have great memories since that year when I won. Every match is tough, so I just want to win the first one.”
One of the challenges that Halep could face is 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, and the young American appreciates that things have now changed in her life, with everyone expecting more of her than they might have done before.
“I learned about myself, a lot of things. Those two weeks really changed my life,” she said. “I handled everything well, all the pressure well. Obviously different expectations now, I would say. Hopefully I can somehow take it easy and not let it get into my head. I mean, it’s different obviously. It’s a different pressure. You have more expectations from other people from the outside. For myself, I’m always hard on myself. Every tournament I go to, I obviously want to do well. So it’s nothing really different. It’s a little bit different, the other expectations. I got to somehow figure out how to manage it. We’ll see.”
Another strong challenger for the title will be 2015 finalist Karolina Pliskova. Unusually, she does not place winning the title as her top priority, but rather doing the things she wants to do to improve her game.
“I have some goals to do well, do specific things on the practice courts, in the matches. Not always has to be about the victories,” she said. “I think I had enough victories in my career so far that I don’t have to really push to win this tournament or to win the next one. Of course, it’s always nice to win tournaments. I want to get better as a player. That’s my goal for this year. Let’s see if I can do that.”
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