What will 2012 bring for Kim Clijsters?
The numbers are short of dominating, but that's what happens when you retire for a couple of years in the middle of your career. Yes, Kim Clijsters could have won more Grand Slam tennis titles than the four she owns if she hadn't left the tour to start a family. Maybe even several more.
But it's a refreshing lesson to relearn from time to time, that Grand Slams aren't the only measure of success in life. And as Clijsters enters the last year of her career before retiring once again, beginning with the Australian Open next week, maybe that's the more significant legacy she will leave behind.
Still, there is that matter of numbers, and where Clijsters will ultimately stand among the all-time greats in women's tennis. With four Grand Slam tournaments remaining in her career, she still has time to add to her total, and that legacy.
That's if her body will allow one last run at greatness. And right now, it's a significant "if."
A year ago, Clijsters was at the top of the game when she beat Li Na in the Australian Open final for her fourth Grand Slam (she previously won the U.S. Open in 2005, '09 and '10). Not long after, Clijsters briefly became the first mother to be ranked No. 1 in the world when she held the top spot for a week. But that was before shoulder, ankle and abdominal injuries repeatedly sidelined her -- she played in only three events in the last seven months of the season and missed both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
"There have been many moments over the last year when I thought it was all over," Clijsters, 28, recently told The Guardian newspaper of London. "These were the moments when I was disappointed and frustrated, when I got so low because it seemed all my hard work had been wasted. But the moments passed, and the motivation to go back to rehab was there again. I've worked really hard, but it's definitely not been easy."
It didn't bode well for the start of this season, either, when she had to retire from a semifinal match at Brisbane last week because of stiffness in her hip. Tests showed it was a minor muscle spasm affecting her hip and thigh, according to her coach, Carl Maes. There is still some question, though, about whether Clijsters can hold up physically through a two-week tournament.
"Given the 2011 season, we will have to look at it one tournament at a time," Maes responded Wednesday in an email through the WTA. "But in an ideal scenario, she would like to finish 2012 with a few highlights and look back on a successful way to say goodbye.
"Why does she want this still with all the discomfort? She is a special one -- [Andre] Agassi like in his last season, I guess."
Clijsters is the 11th seed going into the Australian Open, one place ahead of five-time champion Serena Williams. Williams has overcome her own mountain of health issues in the past year to regain her status as the most feared player in the game -- at least when she's in the mood. But Williams' comments at Brisbane -- "I don't love tennis today" -- make it hard to gauge her motivation heading into the Australian Open. You have to wonder how much having a potential end date has inspired Clijsters, and how much peace of mind Williams, 30, might gain by setting a finish line to her own career.
What Williams seemingly endures, Clijsters craves.
"All my time in rehab has made me appreciate tennis more than ever," she told The Guardian. "I would love to do well one last time in Melbourne and my dream would be to win Wimbledon and play in the London Olympics. And of course one more U.S. Open would be special. But the last months have taught me not to expect anything. I already know how lucky I've been because, whatever happens, it's been a wonderful second career. My dad would want me to remember that forever."
It is that second career that has defined Clijsters, who had just one Slam title in her first stint before retiring in 2007, giving birth to her daughter, Jada, and spending time with her ailing father, Lei, before he succumbed to cancer in January 2009. Since coming out of retirement in August 2009, Clijsters has won more Grand Slam singles titles than any other player. That includes Williams, whose infamous foot fault in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals gave Clijsters a victory en route to the title.
Mary Joe Fernandez, for one, believes Clijsters has done enough since coming out of retirement -- winning three titles in a stretch of six Slams -- to deserve a place on the short list of all-time great players.
"She's a future Hall of Famer, for sure," Fernandez, a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion and current broadcaster for ESPN and CBS, said earlier this week. "She did dominate for a while there. It's been in patches because she's taken time off for injuries, she's taken time off to have a child. There hasn't been a lot of fluidity, I guess, over a long stretch of time with her.
"But it's impressive to me. I can't imagine playing after having my first child. And for her to come back at that level and that amount of fitness, that's mentally really, really hard and strong, so I give her so much credit because that's not easy. So I'd put her up there. She's one of the best players we've ever had."
Clijsters has won 41 singles titles in all and 11 more in doubles, including the 2003 French Open and Wimbledon championships. Maybe that legacy is enough for a player who refused to sacrifice her life for her career.