The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, February 18, 2020

Clijsters’ Return: Can she do it ? | Interview: Perez talks college, zoning in on the Olympics and the WTA's pay disparity

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Is the WTA too deep for a successful Clijsters comeback?

Kim Clijsters marked her second WTA comeback this week at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Originally scheduled to face Kiki Bertens, the Belgian received a new opponent in Australian Open finalist and two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza.

The Clijsters comeback is interesting: the Hall of Famer is 36 and hasn’t played a match in over seven years. Toss in a knee injury sustained in training to delay her return, many counted her out before she took the court.

Muguruza’s fine form from Melbourne continued from the beginning of the match, taking advantage of Clijsters’ rust and going up 6-2, 3-0. However, vintage Clijsters arrived and made it a match.

Muguruza had to find composure before taking the match 6-2, 7-6(6), but the tennis world took notice by the strong finish Clijsters had in the match.

Now, the main question here if the Clijsters comeback bears major success: Does it say more about Clijsters as an athlete or is the WTA so dire that someone so far out of the game can contend on a few months of training?

We’re in a period in women’s tennis where it might have its most depth in history, but at the same time, there is so much uncertainty at the top of the game.

Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and Sofia Kenin can be in the mix, but injuries and sometimes self-doubt hinder their ability to be dominant. Veterans like Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova do well at WTA tournaments, but falter at Grand Slams. Then the case of Serena Williams, a longtime Clijsters rival, bears more uncertainty. The 23-time Grand Slam champion has struggled with injuries and health since coming back from maternity leave and when she powers through Grand Slam draws, she chokes away in the final.

What Clijsters brings to the court, you can’t teach. Her ballstriking is near-unparalleled and when she’s not off-balance, she’s hard to knock off the court. Clijsters will be playing in Monterrey and Indian Wells next month and I can only expect her to get better with every day. There’s no doubt that with more training, consistency and good health, she can easily perform at a Top 50 level. She says she doesn’t have any expectations or a timeline on when to call it a day, so time will tell.

I personally think the WTA has never been more exciting, especially with no clear winner and the upper echelon constantly changing. However, from a marketing standpoint, it’s hard to sell tickets when there’s no clear common star or fan favorite. However, Clijsters is one of tennis’ ultimate athletes and is universally loved. Her comeback only brings excitement in a time where nostalgia reigns supreme.

This Week in Women’s Tennis

Kiki Bertens became the first player to defend the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy in tournament history, defeating Elena Rybakina, 6-1, 6-3.

Magda Linette secured her second WTA title at the GSB Thailand Open presented by E@ in Hua Hin. The Pole took down qualifier Leonie Kung, who was playing only her second-ever WTA event, 6-3, 6-2.

Your favorite WTA stars celebrated Valentine’s Day, but it’s safe to say Natalija Kostic had the most memorable, getting engaged after her WTA main draw debut.

After successful campaigns with FearlesslyGirl, Madison Keys announced Kindness Wins, a nonprofit organization geared making the world a kinder place.

Although a traditionalist, Darren Cahill is all in for the trial to allow coaching from the stands, which debuted this week in Dubai.

Wuhan native and 2019 Hall of Famer Li Na has committed to donate $430,000 to help combat Coronavirus, while Chines No. 1 Wang Qiang will donate $140 for every game she wins in her next six events.

The WTA continued their “Legacy Spotlight” pieces and this week rolled out their interview with Peggy Michel, who went from Wimbledon champion to becoming the Assistant Tournament Director at the BNP Paribas Open.

Naomi Osaka stars in Tokyo 2020’s campaign announcing their motto, “United to Win.” It was also announced by Netflix that Osaka is in the midst of filming a documentary that will follow the former No. 1 from last year’s US Open through the Olympics.

Sloane Stephens and coach Kamau Murray will lead the Chicago Smash, World Team Tennis’ new expansion team.

Monica Puig is one of the stars of’s My Tennis Life and her most recent episode highlights her trip to Harvard’s Crossover into Business program.

Former Top 10 star Barbara Schett received the Sports Life Award Austria for her efforts to promote the game and the Upper Austria Ladies Linz tournament.

The following champions were crowned this week on the ITF circuit:

$100,000 Cairo, Egypt: Irina-Camelia Begu (WTA #118)
$100,000 Nicolasville, Kentucky, USA: Olga Govortsova (#188)
$25,000 Grenoble, France: Clara Burel (#UNR, ITF #423)
$25,000 Trnava, Slovakia: Jaqueline Cristian (#200)
$15,000 Antalya, Turkey: Julyette Maria Josephine Steur (#370)
$15,000 Cancun, Mexico:  Maria Lourdes Carle (#604)
$15,000 Hamilton, New Zealand: Eri Shimizu (#990)
$15,000 Heraklion, Greece: Martina Spigarelli (#754)
$15,000 Monastir, Tunisia:Ilona Georgiana Ghioroaie (#482)

Tweet of the Week

Professional women’s tennis invaded Delray Beach for the first time. Coco Gauff and NCAA champion Estela Perez-Somarriba played an exhibition in front of a sold-out crowd at the ATP’s Delray Beach Open:

Five at IX: Ellen Perez

After reaching her third WTA final this past week in Hua Hin, Ellen Perez sits at No. 49 in the WTA doubles rankings. She earned All-American honors playing for the University of Georgia before turning pro after her junior season in 2017. She takes time to reflect on her college career, a possible berth into the Tokyo Olympics and more.

Joey: You were a top junior and then played for the University of Georgia for three years. As someone who didn’t complete eligibility and had to make that decision, describe the thought process. Was there any regret? And do you plan on returning to finish at UGA or elsewhere?
Ellen: I always went to college with the mindset of wanting to go pro. Originally, I said I would go for a year and see how I went and then look to turn pro. However, freshman year I had surgery and knew I needed to at least do my sophomore year to get more tennis and competition under my belt. After my second year, I felt like I was ready and did consider turning pro especially when I made main draw of the US Open and knew I couldn’t take the prize money if i went back to school. However, a part of me just couldn’t leave college so last minute. I loved the environment and the team and also it didn’t give them much notice to find a replacement so I told myself I’d do one more year and then definitely go pro. After my junior year I was going to just start with just taking my senior year fall off and see for sure that going pro was what I wanted to do. However, due to certain circumstances at Georgia, I was pushed to go pro, so it also made that decision to leave for good a lot easier. My junior year brought a lot of challenges, so my only regret was kind of how it all ended because I loved my first two years. I’m currently still completing my degree through Georgia online and have just 5 classes to go. I’m in no rush but also enjoying slowly ticking off a class here and there and will definitely get my degree at some point!

Joey: You are now in the Top 50 in the doubles rankings. I’ve spoken with Sabrina Santamaria and Hayley Carter who have had to cut their singles time short because of their doubles success. Do you feel that pressure?
Ellen: I don’t feel any pressure to stop and cut my singles career short. Singles is still my priority and I feel like I’ve been able to find the balance of playing singles tournaments and doubles tournaments as I’ve managed to keep my rankings somewhat similar or in range to at least play the big tournaments in both. However, as my doubles ranking progresses into the top 50 and my singles ranking is outside top 200, I may face the challenge of having to pick where my priorities lie.

Joey: Speaking of college and doubles. There is a large contingent of NCAA women’s tennis alums taking over the Top 100 in doubles. What do you attribute to that and does having so many colleagues you’re familiar with help or hurt your success?
Ellen: Playing college doubles allows you to really work on your hands and reflexes at the net. You play so many doubles matches and also playing under pressure is a huge part to being successful on the tour and I feel like at college you play with a lot of pressure and big moments. I think having so many colleagues doing so well in doubles is awesome and has helped my doubles. I’ve been able to pair up with some of the girls and also it gives you the belief and confidence that you too can have the same success. The college girls also have a great culture and vibe about them and it’s easy to get along with them and work on things together while on the tour because it’s not easy to travel with a coach.

Joey: You were seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time at the Australian Open, partnering Sam Stosur. Are the Olympics in Tokyo a realistic sight this year?
Ellen: It’s been great to be able to team up with Sam and one of the big reasons was to see how we were as a combo for potential fed cup or Olympic opportunities. My ranking is within range to play in the Olympics but it just depends on the pairings and players we send. Having ash Barty also ranked so high it could mean they pair up so I’m not holding my breath on anything but it is a huge goal and dream of mine to play at the Olympics!

Joey: You aren’t afraid to use your voice on social media, which is nearly rare on the tennis circuit. To improve the grassroots efforts and the pay disparity between men and women, what do you think needs to be done?
Ellen: I try to be more quiet on social media than what I normally am in person as I know it can get me in trouble (laughs) I think the pay disparity is getting better, but of course not equal in the sense of how many tournaments the men have each week compared to women’s. Also, the financial contribution for the same level tournament is a lot higher for the men than the women. However, it’s great to see equal prize money at the slams. It was also great to see how much money was on offer for the WTA Finals this year. But to be honest, I’m not that informed about the differences and disparity on the issue as I don’t like to waste my time and energy complaining about it when tennis is one of the women’s sports that is paid really well. There’s a lot of sports out there that get paid peanuts in comparison. I actually think the pay differences isn’t the big issue and it’s more the issue of how much money from revenue is going back into tennis.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon  Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala,@ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.