It may have been billed as a fun event to mark the start of a new chapter for the All England Club, but one of today’s participants says that the Centre Court Celebration could just be the moment that changes her life.
Kim Clijsters – the 25-year-old Belgian who gave birth to a daughter named Jada just over a year ago, well into what seemed like an increasingly contented retirement – revealed that it was Wimbledon’s request which was the source of her recent decision to make a comeback on the professional tour.
“I had started practising again but I was really out of shape and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. About four weeks into training I felt I would like to compete again on tour”. And then came the Wimbledon invitation which, she says, clinched that decision. “Since then I have been training really hard.”
She and Tim Henman teamed up to win a mixed doubles challenge against Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi 7-6 and then after a short rest while the men took centre stage, the day’s proceedings ended with a lively “bash-fest” in which Clijsters beat Graf 6-4 and which earned a standing ovation for the quality of tennis.
But Kim does not consider herself sufficiently along the road towards full fitness to compete at Wimbledon next month, despite the offer of a wild card made to her in person by Wimbledon’s chairman Tim Phillips. “Not this year,” she said. “Hopefully, next year.”
The former world number one, who retired to marry an American basketball player, Brian Lynch, and to start a family, plans to begin competing again at the Cincinnati tournament in advance of the US Open, the scene of her single Grand Slam success in 2005.
Kim also spent much of her time off the pro tour helping to care for her father, the former Belgian football international Leo Clijsters, who was suffering from cancer.
Her father’s death four months ago was also a factor in her wish to return. “When he passed away I wanted to get back on court and see how I felt. Then I discovered I was actually enjoying it.” Until then, she said, she had not had time even to think about it in the two-and-a-half years since she turned her back on the game.
She also loves the new roof. “Under the roof at the Australian Open it felt as if the world was closing in on you, but there is so much natural light under this roof you don’t feel as if you are under cover at all.”
After her marvellous one-setter against Steffi, Kim recalled how she had played Graf in the German’s last Wimbledon. “I only won two or three games but I didn’t care, it was a lot of fun,” said the Belgian whose bedroom walls as a youngster were plastered with Graf pictures.
So she will be interested in hearing the German’s verdict on her chances of successfully juggling the tennis tour with motherhood. Graf said afterwards: “I couldn’t, wouldn’t envisage doing it. It’s going to be a challenge but she seems really determined.
“She has the talent and the tennis. I really think she can do it. I hope it works out for her.”