Kim Clijsters ready for biggest challenge yet as she begins latest comeback at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

The 36-year-old Belgian faces tough opening clash on big return against former world No 1 and recent Australian Open finalist Muguruza

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - FEBRUARY 16:Kim Clijsters of Belgium signs autographs ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium on February 16, 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
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Kim Clijsters has never been one to shy away from a challenge. After all, this is an athlete who won three of her four Grand Slam singles titles after becoming a mother, who spent an accumulative 20 weeks as world No 1 in an ultra-competitive era featuring the Williams sisters – Serena and Venus –  and fellow Belgian Justine Henin in their primes.

A player who, along with Henin, blazed a trail for her country and led Belgium to their first Fed Cup title – a nation that previously had not produced tennis champions.

Yet, this next challenge might just be the biggest one yet. Clijsters – at the age of 36, a mother of three, and retired for seven-and-a-half years – will begin the third chapter of her career at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

Understandably, the question on everybody’s lips is why? And why now? “It was a feeling that I had inside for a little while,” Clijsters said during Sunday's media day for the tournament.

"Once in a while, that feeling would go away when I was home with the kids. A couple times it would come back. [Then] it got stronger and stronger.
"I talked to my husband. He was like, 'why not? Stop worrying about why and ask yourself why not'. He made a very good point. I was like, 'Alright, yeah, why not? Why wouldn't I do it?'"

Clijsters, who first retired from tennis in 2007 at the age of 23, was initially scheduled to make her latest return at the Australian Open – a tournament she won in 2011 – before a knee injury delayed her plans. Next month's Monterrey Open was then meant to host her comeback, but a quick recovery has ensured the return will take place in the UAE.
"I've enjoyed the challenge. It is with ups and downs, but it's how you mentally stay strong through those situations," she said. "It's all easy when it goes well. When things don't go well, that's when you have to be committed and focused. I've been doing that. It's been an interesting but very challenging process that I'm really enjoying."

The next important step in that process will take place on Monday when Clijsters competes in her first singles match since August 2012. Her opening assignment in Dubai could not be much tougher after being drawn against Garbine Muguruza, the former world No 1 who banished recent struggles with a run to the Australian Open final.

At this stage, though, results and deep runs at tournaments are not the immediate priorities for Clijsters. "I don't think it really matters in my situation right now," she said. "I still feel like I have a lot of things that I want to focus on and start to get a feel for things again mentally, physically, emotionally, and how I'm going to feel when I'm out there.
"So, I think that is my main concern or goal: to get a hang of those kinds of situations without having to worry too much.

“I've been practicing well. It's important to now try to put whatever is going well in practice into a match and see how I will deal with being under pressure, nerves, those kinds of things.

"That's something that I haven't done yet, and that’s also why we decided to come to Dubai, to get into those kinds of situations a little bit quicker.”

Stepping on to a match court for the first time in nearly 90 months is a step into the unknown for Clijsters. Since then, she has had two more children and will be returning to a tour where many of the younger, leading lights would have been, at the time of her last retirement, precocious juniors still dreaming of careers as professionals.

This is all part of the challenge that awaits Clijsters and it is clear she is embracing what the next chapter has in store. “Obviously it's been a long time,” she said. “But the belief is there, so that's a start.”