Now the Belgians Are Famous At Last
Now the Belgians Are Famous At Last
© Harry Collins
Tuesday, June 10, 2003
In the women’s game Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, who contested the first all-Belgian Grand Slam final at the French Open this month, have made such massive progress that they are ranked second and third respectively, having achieved the considerable feat of dividing the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, in those rankings
And on the men’s side Belgium produced a semi-finalist at The Championships last year in Xavier Malisse, who height contrasts vividly with the Rochus brothers, Olivier and Christophe, but who has teamed with them to give the country a fine Davis Cup squad.
Then, of course, we must not forget Kim Clijsters' younger sister, Elke, already ranked world number one in junior doubles.
The biggest headlines have come on the women’s side with the soaring success of Clijsters and Henin, who married Pierre Yves Hardenne at the end of last year. Almost exactly a year separates the two girls, with Henin celebrating her 21st birthday at the beginning of June and Clijsters becoming 20 seven days later.
They are separated more noticeably in height, with Clijsters a well-built 5ft 9in and Henin, even in her trademark white cap, a slim 5ft 5in. However, despite their differing physiques, both have beaten world number one Serena Williams in recent months, suggesting that Belgian could challenge her dominance over the women’s game.
Kim defeated both Williamses at the season’s-end WTA Championships last November to win that prestigious title, while Justine became the first player to beat Serena this year at the Charleston tournament and then overcame her again in the French Open semi-finals.
Both women have shown that crucial ability to be able to perform well on all surfaces. Henin was runner-up at Wimbledon in 2001 and a semi-finalist last year, while Clijsters reached the last eight at The Championships in 2001 and the fourth round last year.
But it is the French Open, where Belgium’s glory became complete in front of the nation’s king, Albert II, with Henin winning the race to capture her first Grand Slam. As for Kim, she has now appeared in two Roland Garros finals, so clearly the ultimate step of a major title will not be far away for her, either.
This year Henin has won four titles and Clijsters three. In addition to the French Open, Henin is the champion of Dubai, Charleston and Berlin, while Clijsters triumphed in Sydney, Indian Wells and Rome, with the Berlin final, like the French, being an all-Belgian one as Justine beat Kim 6-4 4-6 7-5.
The Indian Wells victory was a unique one for Clijsters, since the men’s title was won by Lleyton Hewitt, her boy friend for the last three and a half years. Kim has famously, and repeatedly, said she does not care whether or not she becomes world number one. The priorities for this girl who has a former Belgian Footballer of the Year (Leo) for a father and an ex-international gymnast (Els) for a mother, is to stay healthy and happy.
Similar sentiments can be heard from Justine, who has overcome the devastating blow of losing her mother to cancer when she was only 12 and whose priorities lie in eventually having a family. Meantime, however, there are tennis titles to be won by both of these supremely talented Belgians.
Malisse, 6ft 1in and ponytailed, last year became the first Belgian to finish in the men’s top 25. That semi-final appearance at Wimbledon was his highlight of 2002, a rain-delayed five-set marathon contest in which his medical condition, an irregular heartbeat, required treatment before he eventually lost to David Nalbandian.
Of the Rochus brothers, the younger Olivier has been the most successful to date, having won the Palermo title two years ago. This 22-year-old lost in the Copenhagen final in February, while the 24-year-old Christophe was runner-up to Juan Carlos Ferrero on the clay of Valencia last month.
Written by Ronald Atkin