In her first Grand Slam tournament since returning from retirement, Kim Clijsters has beaten third seed Venus Williams and moved into the quarter-finals of the US Open.
It was the All England Club’s invitation to Clijsters to play two exhibition matches to test the new Centre Court roof that inspired her comeback, and should Clijsters win the US Open, she will become the first mother to lift a Grand Slam singles trophy since Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon in 1980.
Clijsters played Steffi Graf and a mixed doubles match featuring Graf, Andre Agassi and Tim Henman on May 17 at the Centre Court Celebration to test the new roof at Wimbledon. In a press call before the event she said her training had given her the belief that a comeback was possible.
“I have to thank Wimbledon for asking me to come and play here,” she said. “I started preparing myself [last year]. I didn’t play, I didn’t hit a lot of balls, and I really wanted to get in better shape and a few weeks into training and working hard I got the hunger back.”
After the Centre Court Celebration, Graf and Agassi were asked their thoughts about Clijster’s return. “She seems really determined and she really enjoys being out there right now,” Graf said. “She seems pretty convinced that’s what she wants to do and she has the talent and has the tennis. I really think she can do it. I hope it works out for her.”
“There are certain distractions that come with having a child,” Agassi added. “But it’s also nice to come home and forget about your day so quickly so it comes with an asset. For a few years you get a break with a child, as you get older you start to think ‘maybe I should be spending my time differently’ but when they’re a baby you can take them along and enjoy being a family on the road.”
If Clijsters can win three more games in New York she will become the first mother to win a Grand Slam since Goolagong beat Chris Evert in the 1980 Wimbledon final. In an interview in 1988, Goolagong Cawley spoke about the challenge of returning to tennis after the birth of her daughter in 1977. “I had to work extra hard after having Kelly,” she said. “The first time I got on the court I felt like the ball was going to knock me over, I was so weak.”
The 29-year wait for another mother to win a major probably has more to do with the fact the elite tennis players – with the exception of Linsday Davenport – have waited until the end of their careers before having children.
After her win 6-0, 0-6, 6-4 win over Venus, Clijsters echoed Agassi’s opinion that parenthood can bring a change of perspective to a professional athlete. “In the past I wanted to win a lot. Sometimes maybe too much even. Maybe now, you know, I know that everything that I’m doing for my tennis is with full focus and I’m taking my time to work on the weaknesses that I still have to work on and everything. But I think a part of that there’s also that other life that I have that keeps me away from tennis; whereas in the past, it was 24/7 tennis. It’s nice now to have that change. When I go home after I’ve been training here during a day off, it doesn’t matter to our daughter or my husband whether I won the day before or not. It doesn’t matter to them. That’s a nice feeling to have, is knowing, Okay, I’m mommy, and she doesn’t care too much about anything else.”
With new father Roger Federer chasing a sixth consecutive title in the men’s draw, could the 2009 US Open see the first Mum and Dad champions?
Since 1980, only eight men have captured a major after embracing the joys of fatherhood. While four – Pat Cash, Andres Gomez, Petr Korda and Albert Costa – were one-slam wonders, multiple champions Boris Becker, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Andre Agassi managed to add just one further slam to their haul after becoming parents
Jimmy Connors was the only singles player to successfully combine family life with playing on the tour in that time, winning three of his eight majors after the birth of his son Brett in August 1979.
For the likes of John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg, the titles dried up as soon as they gingerly cradled the new additions to their families.
Tennis fathers have won only 10 of the last 117 grand slam titles. “(Fatherhood) changes (your) life dramatically,” explained Becker, who won the 1996 Australian Open after the birth of his first son Noah.
“It would be more difficult to focus on one thing alone because your main focus is for your child and your wife, and tennis becomes secondary. That’s a fact.”