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By Richard Pagliaro | Monday, February 17, 2020

 
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In her first match in seven-and-a-half years, Kim Clijsters was impressive, but Garbiñe Muguruza was imposing on serve spoiling the Hall of Famer's return with a 6-2, 7-6(6) triumph.

Photo credit: @DDFTennis

The court-side clock crept past nine. Kim Clijsters was too busy turning back time to notice.

Contesting her first WTA match in seven-and-a-half years, the 36-year-old Clijsters was impressive, but Garbiñe Muguruza was imposing on serve spoiling the Hall of Famer's return with a fierce 6-2, 7-6(6) triumph in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships opener.

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The blockbuster battle between former world No. 1 players lived up to the hype in the second set and served as a proving ground for both Grand Slam champions.




In roaring back from a 2-6, 0-3 deficit to force the tie breaker, Clijsters showed she has plenty left in the tank more than seven years after she bowed to Laura Robson in her last match at the 2012 US Open.

The four-time Grand Slam champion showed familiar feistiness fighting off 11 of 15 break points.




Fellow wild card Muguruza slammed eight aces and showed sharp instinct for the point-ending strike standing up to the pressure of the charging Belgian and vocal pro-Clijsters crowd.

In her first match since falling to Sofia Kenin in a three-set Australian Open final list month, Muguruza served with conviction at crunch time.

"Very happy, you know it was a special match," Muguruza told Annabel Croft afterward. "She’s [on a] comeback. She’s an incredible player. So I didn’t know how it was gonna go.

"But I’m happy to face her, to be the one to play her and I think she’s gonna give me a hard time."




If you think Clijsters' comeback is a nostalgia act, you seriously need to watch the second set of today's match where the 2011 Australian Open champion showed a punishing forehand, the sharp timing to stand toe-to-toe with the Australian Open finalist and even deployed a couple of sliding splits that recalled her vintage days. Clijsters' control on the run, her willingness to engage the world No. 16 in some crackling forehand exchanges and her ability to dial in her forehand and adopt more aggressive court positioning in the second set were all strengths. 

To be sure, there were clear signs of rust: Clijsters committed 10 double faults, was pushed into hitting off her back foot for stretches of the opening set and struggled to sustain depth in the opening set. An encouraging sign for Clijsters is she looked eager throughout and got better and sharper as the match progressed.

The three-time US Open champion was one of the game's quickest players in her prime and Clijsters wasted little time between points when serving today though she did pause to pick at her string and catch her breath after some physical running exchanges.

Considering her lengthy layoff and the challenge of returning against a two-time Grand Slam champion, overall Kimpossible was Kimpressive. 

"I think it was very good; good a player that played incredible can play incredible again," Muguruza said. "So I was expecting it was gonna be hard. I was expecting moments like this during the match. I was just trying to stay calm and just keep doing my game and hopefully it was gonna go my way."

Scoring a service break to open, Muguruza slashed successive aces extending her lead to 3-1.

Serving for a one set lead, the two-time Grand Slam champion grew slightly skittish. Muguruza clanked a double fault to face triple break point.




The ninth seed reached back for some menacing serves hammering an ace and banging out a pair of serve winners rallying from love-40 to set point. Muguruza rattled Clijsters’ blue Babolat racquet with a body serve closing a convincing opening set in 32 minutes.

Rust from inactivity was evident as Clijsters committed five double faults and failed to convert on three break points in the opening set. Muguruza, who doubled the former world No. 1’s winner output in the opener, was accelerating through her crackling drives with confidence.

The Australian Open finalist fired a vicious forehand drive volley into the corner that helped her earn triple break point to start the second set. Muguruza’s consistency on the crosscourt strike was superior as Clijsters dragged a forehand into net dropping serve to open.

Stepping inside the baseline, Muguruza streaked through a love hold to confirm the break.

The back of the Belgian’s blue long-sleeved top was streaked with sweat when she quick-stepped around her backhand and spun a forehand down the line saving a third break point in the third game.

Clijsters’ feet were willing, but her shots weren’t always cooperating. A double fault and a sprayed backhand gifted a double-break 3-0 lead. At that point, Muguruza seemed on course for a routine straight-sets win, but Clijsters was just finding her second win.

The owner of 41 career titles competed with optimism and energy. Clijsters cracked a forehand down the line to break at love in the fourth game. She celebrated with a clenched fist then battled through a gritty hold to narrow the gap to 2-3.




When Muguruza needed the big serve she delivered it an ace and a kicking second serve helped her break through a 30-all deadlock for 4-2.




A fired-up Clijsters showed commitment to the cause exploiting a double fault and dragging a netted backhand from the Spaniard to break back for 4-all.

The mom of three was one point from a 5-4 lead when Muguruza rapped a return off the line that rattled a mis-hit from Clijsters. As the set progressed, Clijsters continued to summon flashes of vintage form dancing up to a midcourt ball to drive a forehand down the line and erase break point.

Piercing the center stripe with an ace, Clijsters elicited a roar from fans holding for 5-4 and shifting all the pressure squarely on the Spaniard’s shoulders.

Clijsters spiked the crowd again holding for 6-5, but Muguruza muted the uprising unloading on some heavy first strikes sailing through a love hold to force the tie breaker.

Pressure tightened and Muguruza wobbled double-faulting away the first mini-break and a 2-0 lead to the Belgian.



Throughout this match, Muguruza answered adversity with calm clarity. Muguruza muted the crowd reeling off five of the next six points, including a gritty, hustling defensive stand that gave her a 5-3 lead.

Muguruza hammered an eighth for her first match point. Clijsters denied it, but the Spaniard ripped a deep return for a second match point then rocketed a whizzing serve off Clijsters' racquet closing an entertaining battle in one hour, 37 minutes.


 

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