If you’ve ever wandered the grounds during the second week of a Grand Slam, when the legends take over the side courts, you know that in tennis, talent is forever. Power will go, consistency will go, footwork and speed will definitely go. But the shots remain the same. More than once I’ve walked past a court and recognized a stroke from the past—a particularly smooth service motion, or a uniquely compact two-handed backhand—without having any idea who the gray-haired former champion hitting it is.
I’ve been reminded of those moments while watching Tommy Haas and Kim Clijsters return to the court over the past week. Haas, 42, and Clijsters, 37, are still perfectly recognizable as people, of course. Neither has sprouted any gray hair quite yet, and Haas still puts his baseball cap on backwards, the way he did when he was a “New Balls, Please” up-and-comer back in the 20th century. Still, it has been remarkable to watch these two retirees, who have five children between them, hold their own against some of today’s best.
In two exhibitions in Berlin, Haas recorded a win over 34th-ranked Jan-Lennard Struff, pushed 18-year-old Jannik Sinner to a 10-8 match tiebreaker, and went shot for shot with world No. 3 Dominic Thiem for the better part of two sets. In World TeamTennis in West Virginia, Clijsters has been even more impressive. She’s 5-0 in singles, with wins over Sofia Kenin, Sloane Stephens and Danielle Collins. Granted, neither of these are tour events, and Clijsters’ victories have been in single-set matches. But the appeal of watching the German and the Belgian has been less about their results than it has been about appreciating the timelessness of their games.
Ryan Loco (Clijsters); Getty Images (Haas)
Haas and Clijsters embody two different types of tennis talent.
Haas is the child of a teaching pro, and his style bridges the gap between old school and new. His service motion is simple and natural. He can come over or under his one-handed backhand. He can win points from the baseline or the net. And if he’s lost a step, it’s hard to see which one it is. He’s a vintage-tennis machine.
Clijsters is the daughter of a professional footballer and a gymnast. Fittingly, she’s one of the sport’s all-time great athletes and foremost exemplars of the modern, power-baseline game. She has a two-handed backhand, and can hit winners from both wings and from any part of the court. But she’s most famous for her ability to drop down into a split when she’s chasing a ball in the corner. I didn’t see this mother of three try a split last week, but I wouldn’t put it past her. What never goes away with Clijsters is her ball-striking ability. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the net, or how young they are, she can always belt the ball past her opponent.
Haas didn’t retire until 2017, and that year he beat Roger Federer on grass in Halle. He has since taken a job as the Indian Wells tournament director, but his game obviously didn’t need much ramp-up time for these exos. After his 7-6, 6-3 win over Haas, Thiem said, “He can beat anybody on a good day.” But Haas was never a fan favorite because he won everything; he was a fan favorite because we liked to watch his varied and polished game. It looks like tennis, and it will never go out of style or stop being effective.
Clijsters’ return is more serious. After eight years away, she announced her second comeback at the start of 2020. In her opening match, in Dubai in February, she pushed Garbiñe Muguruza to a second-set tiebreaker. Clijsters must have felt good about the performance, because her enthusiasm wasn’t dampened by the coronavirus lockdowns. She has always had friends on both tours, and she has seemed at home hanging out with her younger teammates and cheering them on in WTT. Clijsters has won the US Open three times; would you be surprised to see her reach the third or fourth round—or who knows, go further—at Flushing Meadows this year?
When great players retire, they take a piece of the game’s history with them. No one will ever hit the ball exactly the way they did. Watching Haas and Clijsters on TV over the last week, I felt like I was wandering the grounds at a legends event again, being thrown back into the past. The way Haas can carve a backhand at a delicately sharp angle on one shot, and then uncork a down-the-line winner with it on the next shot. The way Clijsters can back up, take a high-bouncing ball with no pace, and still drill it into the far corner for a clean winner. The sport evolves and even the best players fade, but talent is forever.