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Team WTAworld, Administrator, aka Nibbler
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By Neil Harman - Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin are the fifth and eighth best women's tennis players in the world. The British can only look across the North Sea at tiny Belgium and wonder where it has all gone wrong.

While the Lawn Tennis Association cling to the hope that Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong and Hannah Collin - our brightest teenagers - retain a sufficient measure of enthusiasm for their chosen sport, Clijsters and Henin's march to one Grand Slam or another this year is as certain as their sure-footed progress to the last 16 at the Australian Open.

It rather inspires the questions how and why? The two federations in Belgium, the Flemish (Clijsters) and the French (Henin), have to rely on sponsorship deals with big business to keep their programmes sufficiently funded to produce this level of exceptional talent. The girls themselves have an incredible will, their coaches, Carl Maes and Carlos Rodriguez, have been with them since they were 14 and are like second fathers.

Their places in the fourth round in Melbourne were confirmed yesterday at the expense of the lingering Australian interest. Clijsters looks as frisky as her boyfriend, Lleyton Hewitt, Australia's world No 1, looked dead on his feet when beaten earlier last week. She allowed Melbourne's Cindy Watson three games and Henin gave NicolePratt four before taking the second set to love.

Belgium flourishes while Australia grinds its teeth and Britain takes overt consolation from three girls who are willing to give tennis a couple more years. Keothavong, 18, who arrived from Laos with her parents as a tiny tot, was so concerned at Christmas she sat down with her coach, Alan Jones, to see what future held.

"Anne is a bright girl, who could pass almost any university course she wanted," Jones said. "She doesn't want to be ordinary at anything and certainly not at tennis. We talked it through and she's willing to give it a couple more years. I'm hoping that all three of them can nudge their careers forward, but yes, it's scary when you look at what's ahead. We have to wish them well and offer them the best chance we have."

It is not much, then, but it is something. The British interest in the women's singles here was significant in as much as the teenage Slovak Daniela Hantuchova, who took a set off Venus Williams and distressed the Wimbledon and US Open champion in the third round, is coached by Nigel Sears, once of the LTA but now glad he is out of the whole shooting match.

Are we clutching at straws?

Only one British girl, Emily Webley-Smith, is playing in the juniors here. At least there are four boys, a group coached by the Argentine, Tito Vasquez, which includes the talented Alex Bogdanovic, who reached the final of the National Championships last year, and 16-year-old Ross Hutchins, son of the former Davis Cup captain, Paul. If Britain has got it bad, then Australia is not in a much healthier state.
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