January 29, 2011

A Tale of Two Comebacks

When Kim Clijsters announced a few years ago that she'd be coming out of retirement, I knew it was just a matter of time before her compatriot Justine Henin did the same. The two were long-time rivals, just about splitting their twenty-two matches, each holding the #1 ranking for some time and both making a mark at the Majors. Still, you could argue that with seven Slams and three year-ends at the top of the game, it was the slightly older Henin who was more dominant in their first careers.

Oh what a difference retirement makes.

Just a few weeks after Kim won her second U.S. Open in 2009, Henin made the decision to return to the sport. She started out well, of course, making the finals at her first two tournaments back -- one, the '10 Australian Open -- and even won a couple trophies along the way. But she failed to make quite the impact of her countrywoman, who was making deep runs at the big events almost every time she showed up. When Justine suffered an elbow injury during her fourth round match at Wimbledon -- ironically, against Kim -- it seemed clear their fortunes were heading in different directions.

Since then, of course, Clijsters has won her third Major and her third WTA Championship. Despite a #3 seeding in Melbourne, many picked her as the favorite for the title, while Justine -- the winner here in 2004, again after beating Kim in the final -- was more of an afterthought, and even before her third round dismissal by Svetlana Kuznetsova, I wondered how long she would last. A few days later Henin announced a second retirement, pulled out of Fed Cup, and officially left the sport for good -- or at least for now.

Meanwhile Kim was working her way through the Melbourne draw and fought her way to the final -- the first Major championship match she'd play outside of New York in seven years. There she'd meet a spunky Na Li, her surprise vanquisher just two weeks ago in Sydney -- the Chinese had been down 0-5 in the first set before rebounding in grand style to win the biggest trophy of her career. Proving just how healthy she was, Li battled through her first five matches without dropping a set, dismantling my favorite Victoria Azarenka and coming back against top seed Caroline Wozniacki to go one better than her breakthrough run here last year.

She got off to a good start against Kim in her first Major final -- after losing the first eight points of the match, Li was not intimidated and kept up her aggressive hitting. Before you knew it she was giving the heavy favorite fits and broke her opponent three times to take the first set. They traded service games in the second, and Li was actually the one able to hold first, but it was then that Clijsters was able to up her game. She won three straight to pull even and another two to get the decider off to a good start. Though she dropped her next game, Kim was able to keep her cool, control her errors and finish off the third set in just over half an hour.

It was probably the highest quality women's final we've seen in a long time, and only the second in the past four-plus years that went the distance. But more importantly, it cemented Kim Clijsters as the one to beat in women's tennis -- when she was down she found a way to fight through adversity and prevail like a champion, and a third Slam title since returning to competitive play suddenly makes her second career even more impressive than her first.

All that sure makes the difference between her comeback and Justine's much more dramatic. And though Kim's alluded to the fact that her's might also be coming to an end soon, with the momentum she has it's hard to believe that will be the case -- just about two years into it, she might have several more to go.

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