Going Gets Tough, She Gets Going - LA Times
Going Gets Tough, She Gets Going
Henin-Hardenne's memorable victories have come amid public discord. She has a shot at No. 1 as season ends with WTA Tour event.
By Lisa Dillman, Times Staff Writer
She started coughing and finally, after several attempts at talking, gave up. None of the reporters assembled around the table had any throat lozenges, so Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium had to take a moment to get some water and clear her throat.
And that was before there were any questions about her countrywoman, Kim Clijsters, and what has become a Shaq/Kobe-like controversy in Belgium.
There has been no argument about whose country it is, although that would not be likely in a nation already linguistically divided.
Instead, the last time Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters were here in Southern California, during the summer, the heated debate had to do with Henin-Hardenne taking an injury timeout because of blisters at Carlsbad in their final, and Clijsters questioning the severity of the injury after losing in three sets.
Then, after Henin-Hardenne had won the U.S. Open, there was another flap, about her physical development.
Tuesday, on the eve of the season-ending $3-million Bank of America WTA Tour Championships, which start tonight at Staples Center, it became clear that their differences had not vanished. Respect, yes.
Henin-Hardenne, the French Open and U.S. Open champion, had a concise answer to that. "No," she said, before coughing again.
Their closeness was always exaggerated, anyway, perhaps making it easier for them to get along in close quarters, whether in small Belgium or on the high-schoolish tour, which operates like a small village.
Henin-Hardenne, 21, is a year older than Clijsters and her first language is French. Clijsters is from the Flemish-speaking region.
"Have we ever been really, really close friends?" Henin-Hardenne said. "That's the question. There's a lot of respect between each other.
"We traveled a lot together when we were young and we're doing the same job. We come from a little country. It's not easy every day. Respect is the most important thing, and there is a lot of respect between each other."
Clijsters on Tuesday said: "Everything has been blown out of proportion, but I don't want to start it again. I don't want to say too much about it, otherwise it would flare up again."
Many said that Clijsters' father and manager, Leo, touched off the controversy in Flemish newspapers after the U.S. Open. He, Filip Dewulf, another former top Belgian player, and Wim Vandeven, the trainer of female tour player Els Callens, all were quoted in news reports in Belgium talking about Henin-Hardenne's impressive and rapid physical development.
So when Henin-Hardenne stepped off the plane in Brussels, buoyant after winning the U.S. Open, her second Grand Slam victory of 2003, her mood was punctured when she found herself having to deny using performance-enhancing drugs.
Leo Clijsters then blamed the media and denied having made any pejorative link. Dewulf sent a letter of apology to a leading Belgian newspaper.
But Henin-Hardenne said Tuesday she had not received a personal apology from any of the three who were quoted. And as the Paris-based International Herald Tribune said, the insinuation had been made: "In postmodern sports, any comment that links rapid strength gain to rapidly improved results is code."
"It wasn't easy," Henin-Hardenne said of facing the post-Open questions. "When you know you work so hard, you always give everything for this and you win two Grand Slams in the same year, you make people jealous, for sure. That's normal, I understand it. But you don't have to make it public. If these persons have any problem with me, they can come to me and talk to me.
" … After the U.S. Open, you see in these moments who are the good persons around you."
Henin-Hardenne said she learned her own lesson about questioning the severity of Lindsay Davenport's injury and the timing of her treatment during a match last year in Zurich.
"I had many, many regrets after that because you never know what happens," she said. "It was a good lesson for me and I hope it's going to be a good lesson for all those people who [talked] about me in the last few weeks."
Simply talking about herself and a superb on-court record in 2003 was no easy task Tuesday. Henin-Hardenne has had a fever and chest congestion since she arrived in Los Angeles.
Though she canceled practice Monday and started taking antibiotics, Henin-Hardenne said she was not feeling much better as she tries to retake the top spot.
On the line is the year-end No. 1 ranking, a slot up for grabs since injuries prevented Serena and Venus Williams from playing the second half of the season.
Clijsters is the defending champion here and leads Henin-Hardenne by 135 points but can't improve her position. Tour officials said Tuesday that if Henin-Hardenne merely reached the semifinals, she would finish 2003 with the No. 1 ranking.
Henin-Hardenne, who has won eight titles this year, needs only to get out of her four-player group. Besides her, the group consists of Jennifer Capriati, Anastasia Myskina of Russia and Ai Sugiyama of Japan. Her first match won't be until Thursday.
Clijsters is in a group with Amelie Mauresmo of France, Chanda Rubin and Elena Dementieva of Russia.
The round-robin format, new this year, will feature a rematch of the U.S. Open semifinal match between Capriati and Henin-Hardenne. The three-set thriller ended at 12:27 in the morning in New York, with Henin-Hardenne, the winner, in cramps and needing an IV to recover and Capriati in tears and needing the solace of actor Matthew Perry to gather herself to answer questions.
Capriati had leads of 5-3 in the second set and 5-2 in the third, but Henin-Hardenne won, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), in 3 hours 3 minutes.
Though she has not seen a tape of the match, Capriati has been told again and again that the semifinal was the best contest of the year, perhaps of many years.
"I guess until there's another great match, I'll be hearing about it for a while," Capriati said.
"It was a great match, a long match. A lot of excitement was going on and [it was] a little bit overwhelming at the end. It was becoming, not about the tennis anymore, it was becoming so emotional out there. Not every match is going to be like that."
In an interview a couple of days after the U.S. Open, Henin-Hardenne spoke about the epic semifinal.
"I wasn't thinking anymore," she said. "I wasn't afraid to win or to lose. It wasn't a question anymore. It was a question of fighting a lot, it was a great show, unbelievable.
"I didn't think about slicing, I said, 'Take your chances. Go, you're going to win if you take your chances.' "
Henin-Hardenne prevailed in three of the best matches on the tour in 2003 — the Capriati match at the U.S. Open, the French Open semifinals against Serena Williams and the fourth-round match against Davenport at the Australian Open, in which she survived cramps and won, 9-7, in the third.
Those marathons have steeled her on the court, and her marriage about a year ago has given her balance off the court.
Which is why a fever and a chest cold were not unsettling just before the tour finale.
"One year ago, maybe I was going to be scared about playing," Henin-Hardenne said. "This year, it's different. I have more experience. I know it can happen and I'll have to deal with it.
"I'm happy to be here. I hope I'll be ready for my first match. I really believe in my chances. I didn't come here to be No. 1. I just came here to try to go until the end of the tournament. Then we'll see what's going to happen. It's not the end of the world."
Last edited by Tratree; Nov 5th, 2003 at 05:44 PM.