LONDON – If they had been shooting at each other in a Western, one of the antagonists might have threatened, “This country ain’t big enough for both of us.”
The country in question is tiny Belgium. Not much cactus, sagebrush or prairie there, but the firing was fierce as they tried to drive one another out of a Wimbledon canyon called Court 1.
No canyons in Belgium either. Their ammunition is tennis balls and has been for at least two decades since Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin – the Brussels Sprouts — first took aim at one another at a kids tournament in their native land.
How many million balls across the net? Nobody has any idea. “I was maybe 5 when I first swung a racket,” says the powerful 27-year-old Clijsters.
“Yeah we played each other all the time and beat each other, but nobody kept track.”
Henin, who is 28 and miniscule, gives the same sort of answer, smiling, “It was a lot, but I don’t remember.”
But people are keeping track of the virtually life-long rivalry now that they are certain to make their way to the International Tennis Hall of fame at Newport, R.I., and it is neck-and-neck. Kim leads 13-10 after her blazing victory, yesterday, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3, in 88 minutes.
It was Melt-down Monday, often the wildest day of a major when the sweat (cq) 16s’ find trouble at the edge of the quarter-finals and favorites such as Andy Roddick, Andy Murray, Carolie Woznicki, Aggie Radwanska, Jelly Jankovic flounder.
Of course neither Kim nor Justine would be so impolite as to claim that Belgium is a tight fit for both them. But the quarter-finals weren’t large enough for these two, and Clijsters moves on to oppose Russian Vera Zvonareva They are a couple of small town girls, who get along but aren’t pals.
Clijsters speaks her native Flemish (but English to her American husband) while Henin raised in French, handles English well. Clijsters comes from Bree, about the same size as Henin’s Rochfort, neither a tennis incubator. But when Kim’s father, Leo Clijsters, was named the country’s soccer player of the year in 1988, she coaxed him into building her a tennis court. He got a big prize so she should have one, too, she reasoned.
It was a good investment.
Now both women are working on comebacks, Clijsters withdrawing to have a baby. And returning with a huge bang to win the US Open as an unseeded wild card. Unprecedented.
Henin departed to clear her head, reappearing with a new relaxed personality, playing well enough to make it to the Australian Open final, almost beating Sister Serena. And to discuss yesterday’s defeat good naturedly, realizing “there’s more work to do. After all, it took me years to develop into No. 1. Can’t do that overnight.
It was a performance from both sides of the court worthy of a final, thrilling 11,393 onlookers filling that canyon. Henin, reveling in her inimitable variety of shots, started fast, as though to run away with it.
“She was definitely overpowering me in every aspect of the match,” Clijster says. “My serving was bad. I had to go for the lines, and missed shots. I had to try to read the game a little bit, to see what needs to be done differently. I had to be more sharp.
“That first set – I was out there somewhere but I’m not quite sure where. She was overpowering me with the speed of her game.
Henin says, “Slowly but surely she started to be more intense in the second, putting me under pressure.”
That double-barrelled backhand of Kim’s began to roar. Her strength was paying off. “I’ve always had a naturally stronger build
But she [the 5-4 120 pound Henin] deserves a lot of credit because she’s had to physically improve to be able to manage the power girls, girls like Venus, Serena, Maria [Sharapova] and myself. I don’t think there’s a big difference for her power-wise any more.
“ I’m starting to feel real comfortable on the grass. I’ve never had that comfort before.”
Bad news for Zvonareva today.
Henin says, “I’ve won a lot [7 majors] without being so tall. There have been some positive things. I’ve been happy to be back and play here again [missing two Wimbledons]. Wimbledon is one of the things I want most. I wanted to do better here, but there are still a lot of things to improve. So 2011 probably will be more important to myself.”
For Clijsters her return is a triumph for motherhood. Evonne Goolagong, in 1980, was the most recent mama champion here.
Also a triumph for little Belgium, big enough for two champions so good to watch.