Kim Clijsters might not have been the biggest name in tennis during her time, but she was one of the fiercest challengers of her generation. The ‘never give-up’ attitude helped her draw praise from various corners of the world. She has won all four Grand Slam tournaments – the US Open and the Australian Open in singles and Wimbledon and the French Open in doubles with Ai Sugiyama. There is so much she has achieved in her stop-start career. But the one thing that stood out was her ability to maintain her level – or better it – even after giving birth to a child.
Three of her four singles Grand Slam titles came after she became a mother. Not many continue their professional career in sports after giving birth to a child. Many retire to focus on their families or even if they do make a comeback, they struggle to match the heights of their earlier success. But, Clijsters is an exception, a very rare exception and one the sport can definitely do with.
The Belgian star has competed professionally since 1997 but had to wait a while to consistently trouble the heavyweights of the sport at the biggest level. Coming from a country with limited success in tennis, Clijsters along with her compatriot Justine Henin started creating history. The two of them led their country to their first Fed Cup crown in 2001 and slowly began to dominate the tennis world.
Clijsters’ first taste of Grand Slam success came in doubles in 2003. Teaming alongside Ai Sugiyama, she won the French Open and Wimbledon doubles titles that year. By this time, she also started making inroads in the singles category. Two years later, she won her first singles Grand Slam title at the 2005 US Open, comfortably beating Mary Pierce in the final.
Plagued by injuries, she left the sport in 2007 at the age of 23. Clijsters got married and gave birth to a daughter. Unable to stay out of the action, the Belgian made her comeback two years later. With no ranking, Clijsters needed wild cards to begin her second innings. And she received them for the Cincinnati Open, the Canadian Open, and the US Open.
Clijsters took no time to settle down and immediately started showing glimpses of her earlier ability, beating some of the big names of the sport. She was still unranked entering the US Open, but who needs ranking when they have the potential to upset any player on a given day.
She reached the final in blistering fashion, beating the Williams sisters on the way. Venus was defeated in the fourth round, while Serena was beaten in the semifinals. After a tightly-fought first set, she trounced Caroline Wozniacki in the second set with relative ease to win her second US Open crown – not without breaking multiple records.
Clijsters became the first unseeded woman to win the title at the event and was also the first mother to win a Grand Slam singles title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980. She finally got her ranking and it was No. 19.
On the back of winning the WTA Comeback Player of the Year award, the Belgian entered the next year with a lot of expectations. But, she struggled to fulfill them owing to injuries and indifferent form. But Clijsters found her touch just in time to defend her favourite Grand Slam – US Open. She eased past Vera Zvonareva in the final to lift the trophy. This was her third successive title at the US Open.
She ended the season with the year-end championships and took the form to the next year. The Belgian defeated Li Na to win her maiden Australian Open title, matching the record of Margaret Court to win the most Grand Slam singles titles (three) as a mother. Later that year, she also became the first mother to be ranked No. 1 by the WTA.
Her records are aplenty. She has won 41 singles titles and 11 doubles titles on the WTA Tour, which also includes six Grand Slams – four singles and two doubles. But what makes her special is the fact that she enjoyed more success after becoming a mother in the singles game. This proves that even after giving birth, female players can not only reach their previous best but can also attain much greater heights. Clijsters can potentially inspire female athletes to turn it into a norm where motherhood is no bar to excellence.