2 on 2
Who can stop Serena and Venus? Tiny Belgium just may have a pair of answers.
This article appeared in the May 28, 2003, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Bonjour. (That's French.) Goedemiddag. (That's Flemish.) Welcome to Belgium, famous for chocolate, a statue that pees and tennis players. Yes, tennis players. Go ahead, crack a waffle joke. Get it out of your system. But then check the rankings. Serena Williams, then a Belgian. Venus Williams, then another Belgian. That's Kim Clijsters in the two-spot and Justine Henin-Hardenne in the four. You won't see their pictures in a Rough Guide or a Lonely Planet, but if you haven't seen Clijsters slide her muscled legs into the splits to keep the ball in play, or Henin-Hardenne's fiercely beautiful one-handed backhand, you're missing some of the best of what Belgium has to offer.
It's rare that two players from such a tiny country can burst into the Top 5 -- about as rare, say, as having two players from the same family reside in the Top 5. Chalk the latter up to the gene pool and an obsessive father; the former to a combination of chance and national pride. Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne bring the conventional tools of mere mortals -- speed, versatility, flexibility, focus -- against the power tools of the Williams sisters.
And more than any other players, the Belgians leave Venus and Serena mopping their brows. On April 13 in Charleston, to cite a recent example, Henin-Hardenne snapped Serena's 21-match winning streak, which had extended back to November and the WTA Championships. Who had beat Serena then? Clijsters, who'd earlier dispatched Venus in the semifinals.
Serena Williams, the undisputed queen of women's tennis, is big (5'8", 165 pounds). Her sister Venus is even bigger (6'1", 170). "Their talent is a different talent," says Clijsters. "A few years ago, it was all about the touch. Now, it's all about the power."
Outslugging the Williams sisters from the baseline is as difficult for Clijsters (5'8 1/2", 150) and Henin-Hardenne (5'5 3/4", 126) as beating them in arm wrestling. So the Belgians have moved to Plan B. "Serena can make mistakes," says Henin-Hardenne. "But she will not make them on her own. We can push her to make mistakes."
They push with slices and spins and short balls, and by varying the speed and placement of shots, in much the same way a savvy pitcher can confound a home run hitter with a split-finger or changeup. The Belgians move the Williamses off the baseline, out of their comfort zone. And this push begins on defense: They return the sisters' blistering serves and charge the net, attacking before the point is too many volleys old. "The only way to beat them is with brains instead of muscles," says Carlos Rodriguez, Henin-Hardenne's coach of seven years. The Belgians don't win every outing against the Williamses, but they certainly make them work.
Clijsters, 19, and Henin-Hardenne, 20, may look like blonde Bobbsey Twins, but their Belgian family is just as dysfunctional and fractured as the Richard Williams clan. Belgium, a pint-size country roughly the size of Maryland, has long played host to a political, economic and cultural spitting contest between Flanders (the Flemish-speaking north) and Wallonia (the French-speaking south). Tensions stem from World War II, when the Flemish sided with Germany. Despite the best bilingual efforts of Parliament, visitors to Belgium are advised to speak English to avoid offending a Fleming by speaking French or a Walloon by speaking Flemish. Any tour book will tell you that.
The popularity of tennis in Belgium has grown steadily over the past 25 years, and interest surged after Clijsters defeated Henin-Hardenne in the 2001 French Open semis. Henin-Hardenne's loss to Venus in the 2001 Wimbledon final was the second-most-watched televised sports event in the country's history. French and Flemish cohorts in the Royal Belgian Tennis Federation butted heads so often over control of the sport that the federation split in 1979. Clijsters developed her game with the Flemish Federation in Antwerp. Henin-Hardenne moved up the ranks in the French Federation at Mons, in Wallonia. The girls live two hours apart -- Clijsters in the biggest house in Flemish Bree with her parents, grandparents and 17-year-old sister, Elke; Henin-Hardenne in a small apartment in French Marloie with her husband of six months, Pierre-Yves Hardenne. Justine's mother died of cancer when she was 12; she rarely speaks to her father, two brothers or sister, and won't say why.
For 12 years, Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne have battled each other on the court. Clijsters has won seven of their 10 matches on the pro tour, though Justine beat Kim in the final of the German Open on May 11, raising her finals record against her countrymate to 2-0. They say they're friends, but Henin-Hardenne hasn't learned to speak Flemish and Clijsters speaks only a bit of French. They respect each other, but they won't be spending long weekends together. When Henin-Hardenne got married in Marloie last November, Clijsters skipped the wedding in favor of a trip to Australia to visit Lleyton Hewitt, her boyfriend of three years and the top-ranked men's player.
But griping is not in Justine's nature. She is unassuming, almost timid, hiding beneath the brim of a baseball cap even when she's indoors. Glance at her thin frame, and you'd never believe that her perfect backhand -- the one she learned as a kid watching Steffi Graf on television -- supplies as much velocity as the two-handers of Serena and Venus. "It's the greatest backhand in the game, men or women," says John McEnroe.
But look more closely -- at her extraordinarily wide back, at her lean, chiseled arms and legs, at her upright sprinter's posture -- and the source of her power becomes more obvious. Technically, Henin-Hardenne's game is almost flawless. Along with that backhand, she has a forehand that hits consistent winners and a serve with surprising pop. But the seven inches and 45 pounds she gives away to Venus still get into her head.
Henin-Hardenne won her first meeting with Venus, in Berlin in 2001, but she's since lost seven straight matches. "Serena is a better player, for sure, but Venus is intimidating," says Henin-Hardenne, carefully enunciating the English words she has only recently grown comfortable using. "With Venus, you never know what she thinks, if she is afraid, or if she's nervous. Against her, I'm afraid to take risks. Serena is more human -- we can see that she has feelings."
Serena didn't hide those feelings after Henin-Hardenne's 6-3, 6-4 victory (her second in six meetings) in Charleston. Serena committed 30 unforced errors, Justine only 15. "My whole game was like 9,000 notches down," Serena said. "Sometimes you need to lose. I'm so motivated now, so watch out!"
Clijsters, who has picked up some swagger along with a trademark fist-pump from the shamelessly bold Hewitt, is similarly brash. "I'm not afraid of anyone," she says. Clijsters also has speed, a punishing backhand and a driving, on-the-run forehand. Her power is more obvious than Henin-Hardenne's, mostly due to the muscular thighs she inherited from her soccer-playing, slightly overbearing dad. Leo, who doubles as Kim's agent, refuses all one-on-one interview requests for his daughter and her coach, Marc Dehous. "All you journalists ever ask about is what kind of underwear Lleyton is wearing," says Papa Clijsters, who had a sticky relationship with the media when he was a sweeper for Belgium's national team.
The rest of the WTA Tour can thank Clijsters for wedging herself between Venus and Serena in the rankings, forcing the Williamses into the same side of the draw in tournaments. As a result, not only must one Williams knock off the other to reach a final, but exactly half the field can win a tournament by beating just one of the sisters. How significant is that? Venus has lost to Serena in the finals of the past four Grand Slams. Clijsters has beaten Venus twice and Serena just once, though she has forced Serena to a third set four times, most recently at January's Australian Open, when she lost after leading 5-1 in the third set.
Clay court season is at its peak, and the French Open -- the only Grand Slam played on the serve-deadening surface -- offers the best chance for one of the Belgians to bag her country's first win in a major. Clay is the great equalizer; it mitigates the Williamses' power and passes the advantage to spin doctors like Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne. Plus, Venus is suffering from an abdominal strain and may miss the tournament altogether.
This is a mixed blessing for the Belgians. "If I am going to win a Grand Slam, I'd like it to be against Venus or Serena," says Henin-Hardenne. "Then, everyone will see I can do it."
Pedro is Flemish. He is also drunk. He and his buddy Pete are decked out in full soccer regalia. Red, yellow and black Belgian flags trail from their necks. Jesters' hats fall over their eyes. "When Belgium plays, we're Belgian, not Flemish or Wallonian," says Pedro. The not-so-dynamic duo of fooligans is partying in the Expodroom, a 3,500-seat facility in tiny Bree, 65 miles of brilliant green fields and orange-roofed gingerbread houses east of Brussels. On this afternoon in April, 4,400 Flemish-speaking Belgians have crammed into the arena to watch hometown girl Clijsters (she lives two miles away) and Henin-Hardenne play Austria in the first round of the Fed Cup, the women's version of the Davis Cup. Many of the fans are dressed just like Pedro and Pete.
Because the match is in Bree, the fans are also waving Flemish flags, with the black rearing lion emblazoned on a golden background. The bold red rooster of French-speaking Wallonia, however, is noticeably absent. When the national anthem, "The Brabant Song," is played, the crowd hums along because only a few people know the words, even though it can be sung in French or Flemish. Besides, the French and the Flemish have their own unofficial anthems.
But those in attendance do have one thing in common: the hope that tennis will put Belgium on the map. Until now, the country's highest-ranked tennis player was Sabine Appelmans, who topped out at No. 16 in 1998. On this Saturday, fans at the Expodroom are going nuts for the unified Belgian effort. Henin-Hardenne sits in a courtside row of chairs and claps as Clijsters pops off an ace against Austria's Evelyn Fauth. Later, Clijsters loudly cheers during Henin-Hardenne's victory over Patricia Wartusch. Bottom line: The Belgians will win all five matches over the weekend.
If the Flemish lion is offensive to the few Wallonians in the building, they're keeping mum. They know their red rooster will fly high in July, when Belgium plays the Slovak Republic in the quarterfinals of the Fed Cup in Mons. Beyond that lies the semifinals -- and the distinct possibility that Belgium will face the U.S.
And that would mean that two of the best players in the world, the offspring of squabbling, demanding clans, will be playing singles and doubles against ... Serena and Venus Williams.
This article appeared in the May 28, 2003, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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