By Chris Jones, Evening Standard 29 December 2004
Having made a serious difference to the short-list of famous Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters enter 2005 desperately hoping to prove they can still be major forces in women's tennis.
Both players have held the world No1 ranking, but injury and illness shaped their 2004 campaigns and threatens to spill over into the New Year.
There was also the small matter of Clijsters' break-up with fiancee Lleyton Hewitt to complicate matters for one of the most popular players in the game.
As the sport prepares to head to Melbourne for the Australian Open starting on 17 January, the fitness reports on Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne continue to cause concern. Clijsters is battling to overcome a badly damaged right wrist and, at present, is not in the start list for the Open.
Henin-Hardenne will be defending her Grand Slam title, but has yet to convince the doubters that the viral infection that left her weak and unable to play on a weekly basis has really been removed from her blood stream.
While the Belgians have been struck down by injury, an army of Russian players has invaded women's tennis.
For Clijsters this year's problems have left her without a shirt sponsor for 2005 as the agreements with Siemens and Belgacom will terminate in three days' time.
According to her advisors, Clijsters "chooses to start the new season without a shirt sponsor" when, in truth, her lack of on-court time makes it hard to do a lucrative deal.
A recent visit to the French surgeon, who is masterminding her rehabilitation, offered the first signs of her returning to action, raising the prospect of a late attempt to enter the Open in either the singles or doubles.
From January, Clijsters will be allowed to use her backhand, emphasising the limited work she has been able to undertake while the wrist has been recovering from surgery.
At least she no longer has to wear the cast that was ever present during her appearances in the players' box supporting fiancee Hewitt at tournaments.
That very public relationship hit the rocks in October with claims that the wedding plans had created real pressures within both families and the pair just decided they needed time apart.
Their love story was remarkable given Clijsters's reputation for being so nice and Hewitt's very short-tempered persona on and off court.
Hewitt mellowed during his time with Clijsters and there is every chance the pair will get back together.
If Clijsters does miss Melbourne it will save her from the media hype that would follow her around. The Aussies have been obsessed with the relationship and both players are constantly photographed and their movements detailed.
Clijsters has been filling up her time in recent weeks with constant training and said: "I can't really complain about my shape, which I maintain with squash and running in the woods or in the gym.
"Obviously, my wrist is a crucial part of my everyday life and I have needed loads of physio and recovery exercises. Up to now, everything has been going according to plan but we haven't set a comeback date yet and we'll wait until everything is healed completely."
Former No1 Henin-Hardenne recovered enough strength to win the Olympic Games gold medal in Athens but then promptly found herself too weak to make a real challenge at the US Open.
While she is back on court, her preparations for the defence of that Australian Open title started this month with two losses at an exhibition tournament.
The Belgian lost to world No6 Elena Dementieva, of Russia, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 and France's Nathalie Dechy, the world No 21, 2-6, 5-7, in the southern city of Charleroi.
"I have to be positive, I still have a few weeks," said Henin-Hardenne who is now training in Florida.
She intends to play at the Medibank International Tournament in Sydney starting on 10 January before travelling to Melbourne for the Australian Open the week after. "My body has to get accustomed again to the stress, the rhythm," she explained. "This is a new start. I have to recover my touch."
Henin-Hardenne dropped from first to eighth in the WTA rankings this year and had not played since losing a fourth-round match at the US Open in September because the energysapping virus continued to affect her strength.
Despite her health problems, she still won five of the nine official tournaments she entered in 2004 plus that gold at the Athens Olympics. The Australian Open was her last Grand Slam win.
Henin-Hardenne, 22, was first forced to rest after being diagnosed with the blood disorder in April. She came back in June to try to defend her French Open title, but lost in the second round and left the circuit again.
The French, Wimbledon and US Open Slam titles were all won by Russian players and they will be a serious force in Australia.
With the American challenge suffering due to injury worries over Serena and Venus Williams plus the likely retirement in the near future of Lindsay Davenport and possibly Jennifer Capriati, the women's game needs the two Belgian stars back on court.
Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne have the class and skill to fight off the Russian revolution - if they can leave those injury and illness problems behind them.