Australian Open – look out for the comeback queens

One of the intriguing stories of this year’s Australian Open tennis, which is getting underway in Melbourne, is the comeback of Belgian stars Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

The 26 year-old Clijsters retired from tennis for two years, during which time she had a baby, before returning in spectacular form last summer to win the US Open. Henin, a year older, played her first competitive tournament for 18 months in Brisbane in the first week of January. Fittingly, Henin made it through to the final before losing a close match against Clijsters. Both women are former world number ones and Henin won the Australian Open in 2004. Few would bet against either of them winning more Grand Slams. 

The comeback is one of the classic narratives of sport, familiar particularly in individual sports such as boxing (Muhammad Ali is the most famous of many), but also sometimes in team sports (for example, Michael Jordan in basketball). Cyclist Lance Armstrong was a high profile returnee in 2009.

Motivations for returning to top-class sport vary: hunger for competition and the limelight; a sense of unfulfilled potential; recovery from injury; desire to prove the doubters wrong; a need for money. Success on comeback often seems to depend on age and fitness. Clijsters and Henin both have age on their side and their respective retirements were linked more to mental tiredness than creaking bodies. Justine Henin was surely influenced by the instant success her former rival enjoyed on her return to a women’s game that, apart from Caroline Wozniacki, is still dominated by the same players as it was five years ago. 

Some unfortunate athletes are deluded or return as a result of manipulation but for others comebacks can bring many benefits. Returning athletes sometimes gain sentimental support from fans who were less enthusiastic in their earlier career and players often talk about being more relaxed or level-headed after time away from the sport. For media, comebacks of course provide a great story. If either Kim Clijsters or Justine Henin reaches the semi-finals of this year’s Australian Open it will be much bigger news than it would have been five years ago.

For other significant comebacks this week, look out for 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko and former World Champion Stéphane Lambiel at the ISU European Figure Skating Championships in Estonia. Neither could resist the challenge of another Olympic campaign. Win or lose it will be a great story: the comeback is here to stay.

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