“She’s back, and she’s an incredible player,” Muguruza said in her on-court interview.
Playing her first match in more than seven years, Clijsters showed signs of rust early on, hitting five unforced errors to drop serve in the first game and eventually losing the opening set in 32 minutes.
Muguruza would eventually go up a set and a double break at 6-2, 3-0, but that’s when things began to turn. Clijsters had been showing signs of her former greatness until that point and those became more and more frequent as the second set went on, as the Belgian started finding the range on her big groundstrokes—she broke back at love and eventually won five of the next six games to lead, 5-4.
The two ended up in a tie-break, where Clijsters jumped out to an early 2-0 lead—Muguruza got back on track, winning five of the next six points to go up 5-3, and after missing a backhand long on her first match point at 6-5, the Spaniard ripped a big serve on her second match point to close it out.
The second set was more than twice as long as the first set, lasting 65 minutes.
“It was a special match. I didn’t know how it was going to go, but I’m happy to be the one to play her, and I think she gave me a really hard time today,” said Muguruza. “A player who’s played incredible can play incredible again, so I expected it was going to be hard. I just tried to stay calm and keep doing my game, and hoping it was going to go my way.”
One of the big differences on the stats sheet may have been the serve—Muguruza finished the match with eight aces to three double faults, while Clijsters ended with three aces to 10 double faults.
The two-time Grand Slam champion, who was playing for the first time since reaching the fourth Grand Slam final of her career at the Australian Open, is now off to a 12-2 start to 2020.
“I’m very happy with the start of the year,” she said. “It’s been an incredible start to the year, and I hope I can keep this level going forward.”
“I had a good feeling out there. I do feel a little bit of—I’m not going to say relief, but a feeling of the pace I can handle,” Clijsters told WTATour.com. “Second set, I felt I was really in the match. I felt like for a while I was dominating some of the points. I think that’s a good feeling to have, knowing the way I started the first set and the way I was able to get back into that second set, with the type of tennis I played, it’s something that is the positive about this match. I’ll take that with me for the next matches.”
Clijsters, who was originally going to make her comeback in Australia before a knee injury pushed it back for a month, spoke about her expectations in her pre-tournament press conference in Dubai.
“I have expectations,” she said. “They’re not result related or ranking related, they’re more individually for myself. It’s getting a feeling of how I want to play out there. That’s the expectation or the goal I’m trying to get to. I have moments now where I practice, ‘This is it, this is how I want to play.’ I just have to be able to do it in matches now. We’ll see if I’m capable of doing that. I’m sure it will take time.”
Clijsters’ comeback continues in two weeks in Monterrey, Mexico, an International event, and then at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, a Premier Mandatory event she’s won twice before.
The Belgian, now a mother of three, is a former World No. 1 and four-time Grand Slam champion, winning three US Opens in 2005, 2009 and 2010, as well as one Australian Open in 2011.