Having missed the tournament through injury, Kim Clijsters watched in tears of happiness as Francesca Schiavone won her first Grand Slam in Paris last month at the age of 29. Yesterday, however, their contrasting fortunes on Court No 2 permitted little doubt as to which of the friends has the more durable game at this level.
Schiavone arrived as fifth seed, following her success at Roland Garros, but has a mediocre grass record. She disintegrated in the final set against Vera Dushevina, a 23-year-old Russian who beat Maria Sharapova in the girls' singles here in 2002 but has not especially distinguished herself since. Schiavone won a first-set tie-breaker 7-0, but Dushevina renewed her challenge before racing away with the decider, 6-7, 7-5, 6-1, mixing fewer unforced errors (20 against 38) with some delicious backhands.
Clijsters, in contrast, made herself at home – even though she confessed to having lost her bearings. The Belgian has not been here since 2006, having in the meantime retired, married, had a baby daughter, and won the US Open as a wildcard. The new show court had been constructed since her last visit too and she confessed that she would not have found it without a security guard to guide her.
Having returned from a rather briefer absence, due to a foot injury, she was obliged to Maria Elena Camerin for offering only the most perfunctory resistance. The Italian had not negotiated the first round here in her last five attempts and was swatted aside 6-0, 6-3, as Clijsters quickly found her range from the baseline. The first set took just 24 minutes and Camerin was literally on her knees to win her first game, punching back a forehand after doing the splits to somehow win the point.
But she could not repeat her ironic celebrations in any kind of earnest, and Clijsters closed out the match comfortably. The Belgian betrayed none of her tension until afterwards. "I was actually pretty nervous leaving the locker room," she said. "You can probably compare it to your first day of school, after a holiday. I played a good match, but my next one is going to be very tricky."
Her next opponent will be Karolina Sprem, who once had the temerity to beat Venus Williams here. At 27, however, Clijsters comforts herself that she finds grass a more congenial surface nowadays. "I feel the difference compared to a few years ago," she said.
The last time Clijsters was here she was beaten in the semi-final by her compatriot, Justine Henin, who also retired prematurely before staging a similar comeback. Yesterday, Henin had to deal with a more feisty opponent, in Anastasija Sevastova, but soon raised her game to win 6-4, 6-3.
Nothing, however, will have been as familiar to the returning pair as the news that Venus Williams, seeded to meet her sister in a third consecutive final, had breezed past Rossana De Los Rios 6-3, 6-2.