Kim Clijsters will return to Flushing Meadows next week looking to rekindle the magic that saw her emerge from her first retirement in 2009 to win the U.S. Open, but questions about her readiness and a tough draw do not bode well for her chances.
The 37-year-old Belgian retired for a second time in 2012 but came back again this year seeking to add to her trophy collection of four Grand Slams, including three U.S. Open titles.
The good news for the former world number one is that she will be playing on her preferred hard court surface, which rewards her aggressive style of play.
On the other hand, Clijsters has suffered first-round exits in Dubai and Monterrey and, despite impressive wins as part of the New York Empire in World TeamTennis, she withdrew ahead of this week's Western & Southern Open with an abdominal injury.
The U.S. open wildcard will also face a stiff challenge in Russia's 21st seed Ekaterina Alexandrova in the first round on Monday, but she sounded upbeat note on Saturday as she looked ahead to her return to the Grand Slam arena.
"My stomach is feeling much better. I felt in World Team Tennis my level really went up to where I want it to be," she told reporters.
"Hopefully I can kind of drag that through here in the matches. I feel like I'm hitting the ball really well in practice. I'm hitting the ball clean."
Clijsters initially retired in 2007 and then returned in 2009 as a mum, going on to enjoy the most prolific spell of her career, winning three Grand Slam titles before she quit again.
"Her first comeback was extraordinary when she won as a mom," former U.S. Open finalist and now ESPN broadcaster Pam Shriver told Reuters this week.
"This is a much tougher situation because late 30s is a lot different," she said of Clijsters, who is now a mother of three.
A factor that could work in the Belgian's favour is the unprecedented nature of this year's Grand Slam.
It will be held without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic and require competitors to stay in a bio-secure bubble, something that may reward more experienced players.
However, her match readiness remains a big question.
"If she's healthy and has really been able to train and put in the hours in the last 10 days to get herself to 100%, she can still play at a pretty high level," Shriver said.
But given her lack of matches in the lead-up to the U.S. Open, Clijsters might have a better shot at making a run in January's Australian Open, Shriver added.
"I just feel like it's too early for the U.S. Open to bode well," she said. "It would be a tremendous story if it does and I would be happy if I'm wrong.
"Kim is one of the most popular champions ever so any success she has around every corner would be a happy moment."
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