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Thursday, December 10, 2009
Appreciate expediency of Clijsters' comeback


It has been reported that March Madness costs U.S. employers billions of dollars every spring, with workers agonizing over brackets for the office pool and sneaking off for long lunches consisting of beer, nachos and West Virginia versus Dayton. If those numbers are true, I imagine the sordid Tiger Woods saga (which may well end up featuring a field of more than 65) has made a sizeable dent in workplace productivity. Every day, there are salacious new details to absorb, dissect and discuss. My obsession du jour is not TMZ or Deadspin, but the latest issue of Golf Digest (which went to press pre-scandal), and its cover story, "10 Tips Obama Can Take From Tiger." One of the tips suggests that when it comes to conducting oneself with dignity, the president could take a cue from the world's best golfer. The article reminds the president, helpfully, that "Tiger never does anything that would make him look ridiculous."

But as all-consuming as the Tiger Beat can be, I have been taking occasional breaks for meals and, um, tennis -- specifically reflecting on the season that ended with last weekend's Davis Cup final. As I wrote last month in my WTA season round-up, 2009 was a good year for comebacks. And the most compelling of the comeback stories belongs to Kim Clijsters, who returned to the tour after a two-plus-year retirement and won the U.S. Open less than a month later. Clijsters is an affable anti-diva who is universally liked. The best moment of the year in women's tennis came after the women's final in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she celebrated her victory with her husband and their impossibly adorable 18-month-old daughter, Jada.

What bothered me about the way the Clijsters story was covered is that in lauding her improbable achievement, many pundits seemed to miss the point. Commentators breathlessly reminded us that she had given birth in 2008, as if pregnancy is a terrible affliction from which no athlete can be expected to recover. But pregnancy is not injury. Expectant mothers can lose fitness, for sure, but there are many recent examples of elite-level athletes who have "recovered" from pregnancy to return to the top of their games soon after giving birth. Elite distance runner (and world record-holder) Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon nine months after giving birth to her daughter, Isla. Candace Parker, last year's WNBA MVP, was back playing games for the Los Angeles Sparks less than two months after having daughter Lailaa. And in 2007, Lindsay Davenport won her first of two WTA titles of the season just three months after the delivery of her son, Jagger.

Clijsters' situation is an unusual one, to be sure. The only other working mom currently on the WTA Tour is No. 55 Sybille Bammer, an Austrian with an 8-year-old daughter. Whereas most players wait until their careers are over to start a family, Clijsters was 23 when she retired, 24 when she had Jada and 25 when she announced she was making a comeback. Her U.S. Open triumph made her the first mother to claim a Grand Slam singles title since Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon in 1980.

But it shouldn't have surprised anyone that Clijsters, renowned for her stellar athleticism, was able to work her way back into form a year after having Jada. It's not like she had ruptured both her ACLs. She wasn't playing with a surgically reconstructed shoulder (like Maria Sharapova this summer) or recovering from metastasized cancer (like Lance Armstrong in 1998). And it's not as if she waged her comeback at a geriatric tennis age like Kimiko Date Krumm, who this fall won a WTA tournament the day before she turned 39.

What was remarkable about Clijsters' comeback is that her return trip to the top of the tennis world was astonishingly rapid. The U.S. Open was just her third tournament back, and her first Grand Slam in nearly three years. She defeated both Venus and Serena Williams en route to the final. And in winning that final, Clijsters became the first wild card in the history of women's tennis to claim a Grand Slam title. She'd been back in competition for less than a month.

Also remarkable about the Clijsters story is that she has managed to juggle a marriage and motherhood while most of her peers are concerned solely with ice baths, massages and naps (their own, not their toddlers'). In Clijsters' case, having less time to obsess over the details of her own competitive preparation might have worked to her advantage. A notoriously nervous competitor in the 1.0 version of her career, she went 0-4 in Grand Slam finals before she finally won the 2005 U.S. Open. The shift in priorities that parenthood confers may have helped prevent her from tightening up at critical moments during her Open run.

Pregnancy and athletics is a tricky topic, as indicated by the recent case of Mackenzie McCollum, a 17-year-old high school senior who was forbidden from playing for her Fort Worth, Texas, volleyball team during her first trimester. But it's not shocking that a jock like Kim Clijsters could have a baby in her mid twenties and then once again play high-level tennis. I wish the acclaim Clijsters justifiably garnered for her U.S. Open win had been less about the fact that she was "coming back" from pregnancy, and more about how quickly she'd made it back -- and how good her comeback was for the women's game.