Playing across the Belgian divide
Henin meets Clijsters and the winner will be world No1
Tuesday November 4, 2003
The nets had been taken down on the outside courts, and the leaves of silver birch and poplar drifted over the red clay. Inside the VTV training centre, an unprepossessing building in the Antwerp suburb of Wilrijk, the best under-14 players from the Dutch and the French-speaking areas of Belgium were about to do battle.
A decade ago, on such a grey autumnal day as last Wednesday, Kim Clijsters and Justin Henin would have been found here, dreaming their dreams of an international tennis career. Yet it would have stretched everybody's imagination to the absolute limits to suppose that 10 or so years later they would be challenging each other this week for the top position in women's tennis.
With the Williams sisters absent through injury from the end-of-season Bank of America Tour championship in Los Angeles, beginning tomorrow, Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne are certain to finish the season No1 and No2, but as with most things Belgian, this startling achievement may end up dividing rather than binding the nation.
The rise of two African-American siblings, Venus and Serena Williams, to No1 and No2 in the world was improbable enough, but for a country of just 10 million people with no history of producing grand slam singles champions, their joint ascent to the pinnacle of their sport has defied belief - the more so given that they developed on the opposite sides of a linguistic, cultural and sporting boundary .
Belgium may be deemed the art of the compromise, divided as it is, roughly speaking, between the Flemish speaking North, now the economic hub of the country, and the French-speaking South -Flanders and Wallonia. The divisions are inherent, and from this schism emerged Henin-Hardenne, 22, and Clijsters, 21, separated by 53 weeks and 173 years of history.
The Dutch-speaking Clijsters was a product of the Antwerp academy; the French-speaking Henin learned her tennis at Mons. "In the 70s Belgium had no tennis tradition at all and was very country-club oriented," said Steven Martens, the technical co-ordinator in Antwerp and the Davis Cup captain.
"In 1979 the ministry of sport was split for political reasons. So were the tennis federations. We formed our academy in Antwerp and the French speakers then copied us - it was a positive, not negative move, and the national team remains combined. We are not two countries. We have a relationship but we are also working separately. We influence each other."
Which is pretty much how the tennis world perceived Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters until this summer when, seemingly, the strain of competition at the highest level suddenly and wholly uncharacteristically saw Clijsters launch a personal attack on her compatriot.
When the two had met in this year's French Open final, the King of Belgium praised them both wholeheartedly for helping to unite his country in the name of sport. However, by the time they had played again on the international centre stage in the US Open final, with Henin gaining her second grand slam title at the expense of Clijsters, any such unity become all but lost in a verbal war of charge and counter-charge.
Clijsters, after winning the first set in the San Diego final, but then losing the match, claimed that a five-minute injury break by Henin after the opening set had been gamesmanship. "It's not the first time she has done this," said the normally amiable Clijsters. "It's a sign that she is not at her best and so she has to resort to other means to get out of scrapes."
Henin reacted angrily and suddenly the words of Dirk Deldaele,an administrator with the Flemish Federation, that: "What is really good for this country is that Kim is from the northern part and Justine from the southern part. With both playing well, it's good for the unity of the country", had a decidedly hollow ring.
The US Open was a breeding ground for further speculation and rumour, which was hugely exacerbated after the all-Belgian final when Lei Clijsters, Kim's father and manager, suggested that Henin's muscular development was "unusual". The powder keg went up.
Everything in Belgium, as only a brief visit illustrates all too obviously, has a linguistic agenda and, if there is not one, it will be found or manufactured. Not surprisingly, various sections of both the Dutch and French press seized on the row between the Clijsters and Henin camps with an alacrity that went far beyond mere sporting antagonsim.
Martens, who in his home country has generally distanced himself from the row boiling in the media, attempted an explanation as he sat in his small, sparsely furnished office, personalised by a single Auguste Rodin print. Had the row been blown out of all proportion? "In a sense yes, for sure. It's a luxury for our press to have the No1 and No2 in the world, so some of them have the need to find other elements to write about. But on the other hand what has happened between Kim and Justine is pretty human."
"They can have a formally correct relationship and get along with each other, but they are, after all, rivals. I can see this here every day with the youngsters here. We prepare them with intensity, and if they get to a final we congratulate ourselves at having done a good job. But once in that final, it's all about who is going to be the better of the two. And it's the same with Justine and Kim."
Since the US Open final and its verbal aftermath, both Belgians have attempted to dampen down all talk of personal antipathy. The WTA, the professional women's ruling body, has frequently fought shy of such controversies, which on this occasion has spurred the non-Belgian media, bored by the non-rivalry between the Williams sisters, to pay even greater attention to this particular local difficulty.
"In Belgium when Kim and Justine play each other it is a bit like Manchester United playing Manchester City for their fans," said Martens. "But if only one of them is in a final then all but the die-hard supporter is happy. We can have confrontation from each part of Belgium for sure, but if the national team is doing well, or a specific athlete, then it's all Belgium."
In a country less than 200 years old, and riven with linguistic jealousies and enmity, the rivalry between Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne was, sooner or later, bound to get entangled with history. But as America's Pam Shriver pointed out in a purely sporting context: "People need to stop saying they are friends." Martens agrees. "They have different personalities and above all they both want to be the best.
In her teens Henin, the daughter of a postman, was frequently described as serious, articulate and fragile. Extroverted and care-free summed up Clijsters, whose father played football for Belgium. Today such pocket profiles have become blurred at the edges. Unfortunately the lines dividing north and south Belgium appear as painfully sharp as ever.