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Kim Clijsters and the outside question

Matt Zemek

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Danielle Parhizkaran - USA TODAY SPORTS

The decision of Kim Clijsters to return to the WTA Tour in 2020 is easier to appreciate and understand if viewed through the 36-year-old’s own perspective.

First of all, decisions to unretire (and retire) are the athlete’s to make, and no one else’s. The athlete charts a course on her terms. Only the person in the arena has a specific reason for wanting to return to competition — in this case, a second time for Clijsters.

These answers are best seen not through a lens of right or wrong, but through the prism of personal meaning. Only Clijsters can say why this is important for her to do. No one else can assign or insist on a given level of importance. Kim is the one who made this decision. She made it important. No one else’s opinion matters.

Why did Kim Clijsters choose to unretire a second time? This event below probably had at least SOMETHING to do with the decision:

Many observers of women’s tennis will also note that with 14 different women making major semifinals in 2019 — and only two, Serena Williams and Elina Svitolina, making more than one — the landscape of the sport is wide open. There is no dominant player who shuts down others’ hopes. Everyone has a chance of making a deep run.

One 19-year-old, Marketa Vondrousova, reached a major final this past year. Another 19-year-old, Bianca Andreescu, won the U.S. Open in her first main-draw appearance in New York, and just her fourth overall appearance at any major tournament.

Why wouldn’t Kim Clijsters — still younger than Serena Williams — give it a go? She has her reasons. They might not fall exactly in line with the above details, but the bottom line is that she felt excited and energized enough that the prospect of training as a professional athlete was worth the pursuit.

That is her reason, her internal world, her own interior way of arriving at this important choice in her life.

That is the “inside” perspective, the one belonging to the athlete, the one in the arena.

Let us now consider the “outside” perspective: the ways in which Clijsters’ very personal decision might ripple through the rest of the WTA Tour.

To take just one of several examples, Sloane Stephens reacted with joy when she saw this news:

Sloane would quite reasonably be viewed as a player whose best years are not being maximized. She is 26 years old, in a human being’s physical prime, and she has very little to show for the past 15 months of her career.

She and Kamau Murray have returned for a second go-round as player and coach, but no one knows if this reunion will be as fruitful as the first one.

My thought — as it relates to Clijsters’ return — is if this moment will jolt Stephens or various other players who are watching their careers pass by without the progress and evolution they seek. Will this move by Clijsters ripple through the locker room in ways which create a new sense of urgency from veteran players who haven’t been hitting the mark?

Will this be an occasion in which players who are hearing the tick-tick-tick of tennis’s biological clock — Jo Konta would be another example — consciously absorb the magnitude of the opportunity they have, and gain an extra ounce of clarity which helps them perform better in 2020?

No one knows the answers to these questions… but Kim Clijsters has certainly raised these questions and made them a part of next year’s women’s tennis landscape.

Kim Clijsters has her own internal reasons for coming back. I will be interested in how the outside world of the WTA Tour will respond to her return.

This will be fun.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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