Kim Clijsters is used to riding out storms.
In 2009, Clijsters, the affable Belgian, calmly waited out a furious tirade by Serena Williams in the semifinals of the United States Open that ultimately cost Williams a penalty on match point and sent Clijsters into the final. The next day, she won the second of her three U.S. Open championships, less than a year after returning to the tour following the birth of her first child. She won the title again in 2010 before retiring in 2012.
Now, the Hall of Famer and former world No. 1 is back for a third go-round. She rejoined the W.T.A. Tour in February, losing two close first-round matches, only to be stopped by the pandemic and then by a tropical storm at the Jersey Shore town where she, her husband, the basketball coach Brian Lynch, and their three children live part time. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
First the pandemic, then the storm. Is your return cursed, or did you enjoy the time off?
Because Brian’s always coaching or at games, this was the first time we were all together, like every minute of every day. The first few weeks I was super motivated. I cleaned my closets, went through all my kids’ clothes, organized everything, redid the pantry. Then I hit a wall, and it was like, “Why was I in my pajamas all day?” or “Hmm, I should probably shower.”
It’s been 17 years since you first ascended to No. 1. That’s almost half a lifetime ago.
It feels like a different life, to be honest. It was all very innocent. I loved what I was doing, I loved traveling the world, going to these new places, being on tour with women who I used to watch on TV. But I also think it was a good thing that I didn’t win my first final at the French Open in 2001. [She lost to Jennifer Capriati 1-6, 6-4, 12-10.] Thinking about it now, I wouldn’t have been ready for all that comes with a Grand Slam.
After you won your first major at the 2005 United States Open, you said, “At the end of the day, when you go home the trophies are not talking to you, they’re not going to love you.” In the comeback do the trophies matter?
When I was done, I realized that winning is the goal, but it is the road to it that is the best part about being a tennis player. It’s the challenges you set, the obstacles that you have to overcome to try to become better, to get fitter. Now, it’s balancing life, the kids, everything. It’s a challenge, but it’s great. From the moment I made the decision to try this, I haven’t looked back.
What do you think the U.S. Open with no fans will be like for you given that you are so beloved in New York?
It will be weird. So, it’s going to be important to find that inner motivation. Obviously, one of the favorite moments of my career is nighttime matches at Arthur Ashe Stadium and just feeling the vibe of the U.S. Open crowd. Hopefully next year.
After nearly 20 years, you won’t be wearing your trademark Fila clothes at the Open. Instead, you’re not being paid to wear a new brand, Full Court, which was founded by a Black woman, Marguerite Wade.
I actually found the company online. I was looking around for a small, independent brand that was a little more special. I’ve always wanted to create a platform for people who do great things in the world or help other people. When I saw this line, I literally Googled the owner and asked her if she would be interested.
Are your famous slides and splits still intact?
I haven’t felt the need to do it yet. I’m pretty sure if I get put in the position where that’s the only option, then I’ll do it.
What message do you have for your fans? What do want them to know about this final comeback?
I want them to know that I’ll miss them at the Open. And that I still have the same passion for tennis that I had 10 years ago when I was there. I’m sure they’ll see that when I’m out on court.