Battle of the Belges takes sister act script
Battle of the Belges takes sister act script
Today's women's final brings an end to the invincibility of the Williams
June 7 2003
BY Stephen Bierley
The joke concerning famous Belgians, or rather the perceived lack of them, has long since run its course. This afternoon a new chapter will be written in the country's rich cultural and sporting history when Kim Clijsters and Justin Henin-Hardenne meet in the French Open women's final, thereby ensuring the first Belgian grand slam winner.
It is a startling pairing. At the beginning of the tournament few in Paris could see beyond a fifth successive all-Williams slam final, and the second here. True, there were muted mutterings that Venus might be more vulnerable than usual, and that clay was the most tricky surface for Serena, but such arguments have been propounded in the past and duly cast to the four winds by the American sisters.
Even after Venus had been beaten in the fourth round by the young Russian Vera Zvonareva, the second law of tennis, namely that Serena was unbeatable in slam tournaments, remained immutable. But then up stepped Henin-Hardenne, and the tennis world was forced into a rethink.
The supremacy of the Williams sisters has, at least for the past year, been based on the success of Serena. Now that she has been beaten it will be fascinating to see what effect it has on both. Tennis is a little like boxing: once a champion has been floored he or she is rarely quite the same again. In the meantime the spotlight falls on Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters.
Like the Williamses they are quite different both technically and temperamentally. Clijsters, by common consent, is the most liked player on the circuit. It was entirely typical of her that when, during her semi-final victory over Russia's Nadia Petrova, she accidentally sliced the ball into the lower tiers of the crowd, she immediately broke off to check that nobody had been hurt.
The previous day she had wandered into the journalists' bar searching for a couple of compatriots. That she had no inhibitions about mixing with the public, coupled with the perspicacity of knowing exactly where to find newspaper men, was entirely typical of this friendly and charming Belgian, 20 tomorrow, who is the girlfriend of Lleyton Hewitt.
Henin-Hardenne, 21 last Sunday and married last year, is much more reserved but the more naturally talented of the two, with a dream backhand. Small of stature, she has worked exceptionally hard on strengthening her body, and her forehand and serve, as Serena Williams discovered, have improved markedly.
She should have beaten Clijsters here in the 2001 French Open semi-finals but suffered an acute attack of nerves when leading 6-2, 4-1. It was the only time in four meetings on clay that Henin-Hardenne lost to her fellow Belgian, although on all surfaces Clijsters, whose forehand and agility are her greatest weapons, has a 7-5 advantage. "Many things have happened since that match - Kim is better, I am better," said Henin-Hardenne.
On current form Henin-Hardenne would appear to have the edge. Clijsters has played patchily here, losing her opening set to love against Bulgaria's Magdalena Maleeva in the fourth round before winning 0-6, 6-2, 6-1. On that occasion her forehand, the bedrock of her game, malfunctioned, although generally she has had an easy ride, obviously benefiting from the early elimination of both Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati.
Henin-Hardenne, who lost in the first round last year, has obviously had the tougher run to the final, and the exertions of her semi-final win over Serena may catch up with her, although yesterday she said she was feeling "physically and mentally fresh".
This is the second slam final for both women. Clijsters was beaten by Jennifer Capriati two years ago here, the American winning 1-6, 6-4, 12-10, the longest third set in a Roland Garros women's final. Henin-Hardenne reached the Wimbledon final that same year, losing to Venus Williams in three sets.
Just as the all-Williams matches have frequently failed to ignite, so the matches between the two Belgians have often not been of the best.
"It's a little bit similar," said Henin-Hardenne. "It hard to be 100% and have the same determination when you know your opponent so well." She comes from the French-speaking part of Belgium whereas Clijsters, whose father was an international footballer and her mother a gymnast, is Flemish.
The fact that Henin-Hardenne is French-speaking may increase her support today, as it did against Williams. "I don't think people were particularly against Serena but they were strongly behind me. But you have to put all that aside, ignore what's happening around you and keep your energy for the important moments."
Belgium's King Albert and its prime minister Guy Verhofstadt will both be at the final, a giant screen in Brussels' Grand Place will show the match, and the country is in a state of high expectation.
"This deserves a medal," said Jacques Rogge, the Belgian president of the IOC. "It takes us back to the glory days of Eddy Merckx."
Which all drifted gloriously over the head of Clijsters, who yesterday received a telegram from the king.
"I don't play tennis for all these things. I play tennis because I love to play tennis," she said.