Passing shots: Clijsters could give WTA Tour a jolt with her comeback
Kim Clijsters returns to competitive play as part of World TeamTennis this week
The 26-year-old retired two years ago and gave birth to a daughter
More notes: Marat Safin's struggles; Andy Roddick gets some advice
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the popularity of the WTA Tour rivaled its men's counterpart, when stars like the then-up-and-coming Williams sisters held court with Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, Justine Henin, Mary Pierce and, yes, Anna Kournikova.
It seems like an eternity since the WTA Tour enjoyed that early-2000s visibility. But one of the star players from that era is starting a comeback that could help spark interest in a circuit many have written off as humdrum, owing to a thin roster of high-level talent, stars-in-waiting who haven't lived up to early promise (a different Ana this time) and a No. 1 player (the famously Slam-less Dinara Safina) whose credentials are under constant scrutiny and throw the whole legitimacy of the rankings system into question.
Kim Clijsters, the genial Belgian who climbed to No. 1 in 2003, makes her return to competitive tennis Tuesday and Wednesday with the St. Louis Aces of World TeamTennis. She's been away from the sport since retiring at 23 in May 2007 to get married and start a family. (Clijsters now has a 17-month-old daughter, Jada, with her husband, basketball player Brian Lynch.) The 26-year-old is launching a comeback over the next several weeks during the U.S. Open Series on the friendly hard courts, where she won 23 of her 34 career titles, including the '05 U.S. Open, her only Grand Slam victory.
"Probably the biggest struggle was starting back all over because I hardly played for two years," Clijsters told reporters during a conference call last week. "My mind and my body weren't really connecting the same way. I think that was the toughest, like switching that button in your head and saying, 'Look, after a week of training, you're not going to be the same tennis player as when you ended your first career.' I really had to tell myself that I had to start from zero and take it one step at a time."
Clijsters has obtained wild-card entries for next month's WTA events in Ohio and Toronto. After that comes the U.S. Open, where she'll compete for the first time since winning the event just four years ago. She'll know by then whether she's ready to pursue a full-time return next year.
Whether she can return to the highest levels of women's tennis -- and how she plans to reinvent a game so dependent on athleticism -- remains to be seen.
"Obviously, I've been training like a professional with my mind set to coming back as a full professional," Clijsters said. "I'm going to see after the U.S. Open how that whole trip went and just see which things I have to adjust."
Safin's sour swan song
Marat Safin's final season isn't going as swimmingly as most farewell tours.
After losing to Nicolas Almagro in the first round of the Swedish Open last week, the 29-year-old Safin expressed frustration with his results. He's won just seven of 19 matches this season, and his only victory since mid-April came at the French Open.
"I'm tired of the tour, tired of staying at hotels and tired of traveling. ... I've had enough now," Safin told the Swedish news agency TT.
Safin is scheduled to play eight more tournaments this season, including the U.S. Open, where he won the first of his two major championships in 2000. But the former world No. 1 might not last that long unless his results improve.
"I am tired of everything that has to do with rackets and balls," Safin said. "I want to do something completely different."
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