There may have been bigger comebacks in tennis, but none has been more joyfully received than Kim Clijsters' victory at the Indian Wells tournament last weekend.
There may have been bigger comebacks in tennis, but none has been more joyfully received than Kim Clijsters' victory at the Indian Wells tournament last weekend. Six months after the wrist problems which plagued her for most of 2004 flared up again and she feared her career might be ended at 21, the sunny Belgian sent the strongest of signals to the Russian-dominated women's tour that she was back by defeating the world No 1, Lindsay Davenport.
In the year since damaging her left wrist at the same Indian Wells event, Clijsters tumbled from second in the rankings to 133. Bouncing back 95 places to 38th by collecting her first title for 13 months is not regarded as important by someone whose mantra is that rankings, good or bad, have never mattered to her. What is crucial, however, is that, at long last, she feels fit. The corner has been turned and 2004, a year of frustration and sadness which encompassed the end of her five-year romance with Lleyton Hewitt, can be consigned to dismal history.
Kim's coach, Marc Dehous, likes to think the break, and the break-up, were perhaps for the best. "Her time off cleared her head a little," he said. "She's mentally fresh and physically fitter. She had problems after breaking up with Lleyton but luckily she had a lot of time to cope with those things. She grew up and moved on."
Terminating her engagement to Hewitt last October was, says Kim, "the right decision, and I'm happy. I believe everything will turn out positive for both sides. The most important thing is that you are both happy, and I think that will happen for both of us".
Happiness has already, presumably, come Hewitt's way with his swift re-engagement, to the Australian actress Bec Cartwright. Happiness for Kim is to be back on court, and winning again. She owes much to the encouragement of her father, Leo, a former football international who came through severe injuries, and to the support of family and friends. "A lot of people tried to help me keep my mind off tennis and that was an important lesson, knowing which people will be by my side when I'm not playing well or when I'm not playing at all. I definitely missed tennis, but I realised there are more important things in life."
There was support, too, from some of those supposed to be her rivals, such as Serena Williams, Alicia Molik and Anastasia Myskina. But the last time she spoke to her fellow Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne was at the end of their 2004 Australian Open final. Both are competing at the same tournament, for the first time since that January, in Miami this weekend as Henin also returns from injury.
That the damage to the right-handed Clijsters was to the left wrist, used only in the double-handed backhand, meant that she could still practise, albeit by hitting thousands of forehands, following surgery last June to repair a torn tendon and remove a cyst. Influenced by well-wishers, she attempted a comeback at a Belgian tournament, Hasselt, in early October, but suffered a recurrence of pain. "That was when I got the feeling that I might never play again," she admitted.
She retains bitter memories of the doctor who told her, following a scan, she could play Hasselt. "I had a feeling, gee, it isn't 100 per cent, and after-wards I got opinions from other doctors who told me there was no way they would have let me do it." So she proceeded with extra caution, opting to attempt a second return only last month, once again in a friendly Belgian atmosphere, this time Antwerp. "I just couldn't wait to step back on the court, and the people were just as excited to see me as I was to be playing again. I just felt the relief in the crowd when I hit my first backhand right."
Having been overpowered by Venus Williams in Antwerp, Clijsters took off early for Indian Wells, one of her favourite events, and was cheered by the encouragement of the large crowds during practice. Staying fit through the six matches needed to win the title was confirmation that her patience had been worthwhile.
"When you have been out for so long, people tell you it might be tough to get back, or even that you might not be able to compete. So winning a tournament says, 'See, I can do it'. But I still have to be careful about taking things too fast. It is probably dangerous, just because I have come through a lot of matches, to think everything is now OK. I'm not planning five tournaments in a row now. After Miami I'm going home to prepare for the clay-court season, because that's the surface where my wrist is going to be under a lot of pressure and I don't want to rush my way into trying to play a lot of spin.
"There are still so many things I would like to achieve and I know I'm going to have to keep working hard. I can't think I'm back just because I won Indian Wells. Maybe that's why this injury happened, to make me more mature in thinking like that."
One thing the more mature Kim Clijsters acknowledges is that if she does break down again, her career will be finished. And for a girl who has been to four Grand Slam finals and failed to win one of them, many people outside Belgium would regard that as tragic.