Kim Clijsters’ hopes of a run at the Chicago Fall Classic were dashed on Monday when the 38-year old Belgian narrowly lost a tight 3-setter to Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei, while Dayana Yastremska and Veronika Kudermetova both navigated tricky opponents in their first rounds, and qualifier Mai Hontama routed Caroline Garcia on her WTA main draw debut.
I came close today, but still have a good feeling about, you know, I've made progression and I think that's the most important thing. Kim Clijsters
Clijsters, a mother of 3 who wakes up at 5 am at her family’s home in New Jersey to train, received a wild-card into Chicago, but she was eliminated by Hsieh, an Australian Open quarter-finalist who closed out a 6-3 5-7 6-3 victory in 2 hours 18 minutes.
“Some good things, some bad things and inconsistency,” said Clijsters, a former World No 1. “But I think for me the most important thing is that, what I talked with my coach and my trainer about, my fitness coach, was physically being able to get through these matches without big concerns. That was the main goal.
“I came close today, but still have a good feeling about, you know, I’ve made progression and I think that’s the most important thing.”
It was Clijsters’ first match since she lost in the first-round of the 2020 US Open after making her 3rd comeback to the WTA Tour, which then was interrupted by knee surgery in October and catching COVID-19 in January.
“We all know she’s a very great, great, great player,” said Hsieh of the 4-time Grand Slam champion. “Outside the court she’s very nice, very polite, very kind, so I’ve always liked her a lot. … I’m lucky I didn’t play her 10 years ago.”
Clijsters is staying in Chicago to play doubles with Belgian countrywoman Kirsten Flipkens, but is unsure about her future plans.
“I would like to play Indian Wells if I can, if the body holds up good,” she said. “So at the moment, it’s all fine.
“So I’m excited to try to play many matches and I’m really looking forward to World Team Tennis as well. That’s where last year I really felt a big improvement.”
Next up for Hsieh is No 6 seed Ons Jabeur from Tunisa, who received a bye into the second round.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Yastremska came from a break down in the first set to capture an intriguing first-time encounter against France’s Alizé Cornet, 7-5 6-1, in an hour 36 minutes, and Kudermetova triumphed in an all-Russian derby against qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, 7-6(8) 4-6 6-2, in 2 hours 27 minutes.
Following her return to the Tour in July, Yastremska had won just 3 out of her first 10 matches, and retired in her first-round match in Portoroz two weeks ago due to a lower back injury.
While she made a poor start against Cornet, falling behind 1-3 in a flurry of errors, the World No 72 gradually reined her power in and used a backhand winner to seal the break back to get things on an even keel.
The 21-year-old was handed another break in the last game of the opener when Cornet coughed up a double-fault and netted a drop-shot on the final 2 points.
Yastremska stepped up her intensity in the second, shrugging off errors at the start of games to capture them with winners, and another booming backhand sealed her reward, a second-round clash with No 7 seed Elise Mertens.
Kudermetova was also in real need of a win, having tailed off after a phenomenal first half of 2021 when the 24-year-old compiled a 24-11 record through Roland Garros, including her maiden title in Charleston.
Having gone 4-9 coming into Chicago since then, her encounter with compatriot Kalinskaya, the World No 151, was a real test.
Kudermetova needed to summon all her fortitude to overturn a 2-5 double-break deficit in the first set, saving 3 set points along the way, before converting her own 3rd in an edgy tiebreak.
Similarly, Kudermetova responded to getting edged out of the second set in the home stretch with a strong decider, eventually winning a brilliant all-court exchange on her first match point.
Japan’s Hontama needed only an hour and 14 minutes to collect a career-best victory against another Frenchwoman, Caroline Garcia, 6-3 6-0.
On Sunday, the Japanese 22-year-old qualified for her first WTA main draw with a win over Britain’s Harriet Dart, 7-5 7-6(3), to make her Top 200 debut at 200 in this week’s rankings.
She has been building up her form on the ITF World Tennis Tour this year, winning two ITF W25 titles in Salinas and Porto, and her win over Garcia, her first over a top 100 player, extends her season win-loss record to 38-12.
Taking the ball early and able to blitz down-the-line winners from defensive positions, Hontama rarely let the former World No 4 settle.
As the match went on, Garcia’s forehand became increasingly errant, and the Frenchwoman went out on 2 consecutive double-faults, the last of which flew over the baseline on the wrong side of the court.
A trio of Americans scored victories on home soil on Day 1 in Chicago, with No 9 seed Jessica Pegula easing past qualifier Magdalena Frech from Poland, 6-3 6-0, in just 66 minutes, while Ann Li needed only 68 minutes to dismiss Croatia’s Donna Vekic, 6-3 6-1 and Shelby Rogers joined them in the second round with a 70-minute 6-2 6-1 win over qualifier Lizette Cabrera of Australia.
Li, who reached her first WTA final at the Grampians Trophy in February, will next face Spain’s No 2 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, while Rogers also takes on another big name in No 8 seed Bianca Andreescu from Canada.
Another American, however, Madison Keys had to retire from her first-round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich because of a right shoulder injury, with the score standing at 6-4, 2-0 in favour of the Belarusian.
The WTA 500 event is the third and final instalment of the Chicago Tennis Festival, a trio of tournaments that began with 125 and 250 events in August, when Elina Svitolina beat Cornet in the final.
The Ukrainian World No 6 is the top seed this week, who received a bye and awaits the winner of the first round match between American Amanda Anisimova and Viktorija Golubic from Switzerland.