BY MARTYN HERMAN
Only one year separates the best two tennis players ever to come out of Belgium but one of them will be competing at her first Grand Slam since 2012 next week, aged 37, while the other offers her expertise as a TV pundit.
Four-time Grand Slam singles champion Kim Clijsters stunned the tennis world when she announced her second comeback to the Tour this year and no-one was more surprised than seven-time major champion Justine Henin.
Clijsters won her maiden Grand Slam at the 2005 U.S. Open, retired in 2007 to start a family and then made a golden return in 2009, going on to win back-to-back U.S. Opens and the 2011 Australian Open before injuries forced a second retirement.
She is back though and will face seeded Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova in round one and no one will be watching more intently than Henin in her role as an analyst for Eurosport who will broadcast from their innovative Eurosport Cube studio.
Whatever happens, Henin, 38, knows Clijsters well enough to know she will be pushing herself to the limit.
“It’s very hard to predict how she will go,” Henin told Reuters on Friday. “I was completely surprised that she is back on the Tour. I couldn’t expect that but I completely respect it.
“She wants to do it and feels there is some space for her to come back at a certain level.”
In her first WTA tournament for seven years in Dubai in February Clijsters lost to Spain’s two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza, then lost to Johanna Konta in the first round in Mexico in March, before the COVID-19 pandemic halted her comeback.
Henin believes that if Clijsters is physically prepared she can make an impact in New York.
“She is right to do it. The main question of course is physically. I’m sure she can play at a very good level, and push her opponents and give them trouble, I’m sure of that.
“But will she be able to play match after match? That’s the big question. She has always been good physically, naturally. If she can stay away from injuries that’s the key.”
Henin said the fact that Serena Williams, 38, is still the leader of the pack in women’s tennis and is seeking a 24th Grand Slam singles title, has been a motivating factor for Clijsters.
“I’ve not spoken to her for the last few months so only she knows what the motivation is,” Henin, who won twice at the U.S. Open, said. “But I think she always loved being on the circuit.
“Maybe she had the feeling she stopped a little too early. She’s got her kids but it’s not always easy to start a new life. Then she probably sees Serena with her age, and thinks that maybe I can do something interesting.
“I’m very curious, I’m sure she can do something. I think Kim wants to push her limits as far as possible.”
With so many top players deciding to skip the tournament because of health concerns over the pandemic, many believe Williams will never have a better chance to claim the record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title after losing in her last four major finals.
Henin is not so sure though and believes the lack of fans could work against the American.
“She likes big atmospheres, she takes a lot from the fans and is the kind of player who prefers the stadium. That motivates her. It’s an opportunity for her but are the conditions going to be right for her?”