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‘Who knows?’ Barty elephant in room as Wimbledon return sparks big comeback question



‘Who knows?’ Barty elephant in room as Wimbledon return sparks big comeback question

Kim Clijsters, who carved out a reputation as the Queen of Comebacks during a celebrated career, will be keeping a keen eye on 2021 Wimbledon champion Ash Barty during the Legends event at the All England Lawn Tennis Club this week.

The Belgian star, who won three grand slams including the Australian Open after returning to tennis following a two-year hiatus, is excited by the prospect of sharing a court with Barty when the rain that has marred Wimbledon eventually clears.

While the Australian champion and those who know her well are adamant she has no plans of making a comeback, the presence of Barty around Wimbledon has excited tennis fans and former players ahead of her appearance alongside her great mate Casey Dellacqua.

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But Clijsters, whose successful return to tennis was triggered by an initial block of training for exhibitions, pondered whether Barty might get the bug again having returned to the site where she matched the deeds of her idol Evonne Goolagong in 1971 three years ago.

The former world No.1, who was dubbed “Aussie” Kim when dating Lleyton Hewitt, pointed out that 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki used the 2023 Legends event as a springboard for an impressive comeback to the tour in the United States last year.

“It sounds very similar to me a few years ago, many years ago I should say now, but it’s exciting. I never got to play against her but I practised against her before, so it’s exciting to have her playing on the Legends tour,” Clijsters said.

“To have Ash playing the Legends is cool. It’s fun. And who knows? Last year seeing Caroline Wozniacki practice in between our Legends matches, we were all like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you practising this much?’

“So there’s definitely a part of me that hopes that she kind of gets triggered by the challenge and the adventure that it is to come back on tour with a family, but … I haven’t heard anything about it.”

On the eve of Wimbledon, Barty’s long-term coach Craig Tyzzer said he was intrigued when she called him recently to ask whether he was available for a training block. But when he learned it was only for the Wimbledon Legends doubles, his heart began beating again.

“I was up in Brisbane not long ago and she said, ‘Are you bringing your racquets?” he told the Tennis Australia website.

“I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘I want to hit a few balls’. I thought, ‘OK. That’s interesting’. (But then) I told her I don’t think we need a training week for that.

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“With Ash, you never know, but she’s pretty adamant she’s never coming back. The last time she came back, it was the competitive stuff that she missed, but she is super busy with (her son) Hayden and family is now her goal. She is enjoying that immensely.”

Barty broke the news of her retirement in March, 2022, in a chat with Dellacqua, who has enjoyed hitting the courts with her as they prepare for the Legends event this week.

“She’s playing really well. She’s feeling good, she’s excited and she’s a busy girl this week,” Dellacqua said.

“She’s (had) a lot of commitments as well. On top of obviously being a parent – I’m kid free, so I’m just living my best life – but she’s got a lot of commitments.”

Clijsters said the decision to make a comeback was a very personal thing that required complete commitment.

“I do understand, probably because I was also young when I retired the first time, and I didn’t think I’d ever come back when I stopped playing,” she said.

“Nobody … can really feel or understand what it’s like to be from such a young age, (when you are) looked at as this huge talent, with the expectation and the pressure and stuff.

“It gets easier to deal with it and you kind of turn off all the outside influences off as you get older, but it will be interesting. But I don’t know if she has any desire. I hope I get to play against her and have a chat and try to figure some stuff out.”

LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 05: (L-R) Sam Stosur and Rennae Stubbs attend Tennis Australia’s Legends Of Lawn Barbecue at Aussie House in Wimbledon.Source: Getty Images

After a recent final in Birmingham, Barty’s former Australian teammate Ajla Tomljanovic quipped that she had heard the Legends were pissed about the 2019 Roland Garros champion playing at Wimbledon given she was a dominant force on the tour just two years ago.

Former US Open champion Sam Stosur laughed when quizzed about it on Tuesday in London and noted the 28-year-old’s relative youth compared to the rest of the field.

“No (I’m not pissed off about it) but she must be the youngest legend ever to play, right? (She is) not even 30. I mean, at least I’m 40 now, so I’ve kind of got over that hill,” she said.

“Look, obviously it is a real privilege to come back here and play and if you get the opportunity, you take it.”

While Australia’s women have failed to fire in grand slams this year, they have again qualified for the Billie Jean King Cup finals in Spain in November.

Asked if she might take the chance to whisper in the ear of Barty, who has earned rave reviews for her performance as a pundit for the BBC, the first-year Australian captain Stosur said she would be happy to have the former world No.1 involved in any capacity.

“I don’t know (whether) she wants to be a cheerleader, but obviously Ash has got so much to give, whether it is on or off the court in mentoring or coaching, whatever it might be,” Stosur said.

“So if she wants to be involved, I certainly wouldn’t hinder that process. She has got a lot to give. She is a champion of the sport, an Australian hero in tennis terms, so we’ll see where things go.”

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 13: The Australian team captained by Sam Stosur.Source: Getty Images

Stosur, on a hypothetical basis, said she had no doubt the three-time major champion would be highly competitive if she decided to return to the sport over the next couple of years.

“Absolutely. She’d be competitive straight away. But you’ve still got to work. It’s not easy just to come back,” he said.

“I think we’ve seen that with the likes of a Wozniacki, (Angelique) Kerber, those two who have come back, it hasn’t just been plain sailing straight to the top of the sport.

“Tennis moves very quickly and when you’re not in it, it’s amazing how quickly it does go, but I have no doubt if Ash put in the work, especially on a surface like this, she’s got shots and elements to her game that not many players have that can cause so much trouble.

“Hypothetically speaking here, she left when she was at the top and I don’t see why, a couple of years later with work behind her, why it wouldn’t be happening again.”

Ash Barty and Garry Kissick posted this of their son Hayden to celebrate his first birthday. Picture : InstagramSource: Instagram

Dellacqua, who reached the final of every major with Barty and was to partner her against Andrea Petkovic and Magdalena Rybarikova on Tuesday until their match was cancelled because of rain, agrees.

“There is no doubt if she wanted to, at 28 years of age, if she put the work in, 100 per cent,” she said.

“Absolutely. But you also have got to put the work in. You have to respect it. There is no doubt that if she trained and played, she would be at the top of the game.”

Former Billie Jean King Cup captain Alicia Molik is also part of the Legends event and said she hoped Barty’s legacy would be to create a new generation of Aussie stars.

“We want a revival, but at the same time, we have been pretty blessed with what Ash Barty delivered us,” Molik said.

“If you look back at it, it was all condensed in a three, three-and-a-half-year period, so it’s really hard to replicate that immediately. We all want someone to have that same success, but she also might be a once-in-a-generation player.

“I’m not quite sure we’ll see anyone with that kind of class and poise, but also her ability to hit her straps quite quickly after returning to the tour, winning slams quickly – an amazing ability as a tennis player, she had.”

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