Belgian rivalry one-sided in recent years

Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters are from Belgium, but the similarities end there. Whit Sheppard writes about a rivalry that Henin-Hardenne continues to dominate.

Updated: July 6, 2006, 3:52 PM ET
By Whit Sheppard | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- One is easygoing, almost universally liked by her peers, fans and media, and as keen to start a family as she is to add a second Grand Slam trophy to her mantel.

The other is tightly wound, keeps her distance from her family of origin, and is mindful of her place in tennis history.

They've been playing against one another since they were children, but whatever others may think of them, it doesn't seem that familiarity has bred contempt for fellow Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Justine Henin-Hardenne
AP Photo/Anja NiedringhausJustine Henin-Hardenne is the only women's player this year to reach the final in each of the first three Grand Slam events.

"People automatically think that because you beat each other a few times, it creates tension," the second-seeded Clijsters said leading up to their Wimbledon semifinal Thursday. "I don't know about her, but I've never felt that. We get along."

Their frequent matches, 22 in total since 1998, are a microcosm of a nation united by its love for chocolate, beer and Belgian waffles but divided by culture and language.

Despite their differences in language (Henin-Hardenne speaks French, Clijsters speaks Flemish), familiarity has decisively turned their longtime on-court rivalry in Henin-Hardenne's favor, as she beat Clijsters 6-4, 7-6 (4) Thursday for her eighth win in their past 11 meetings and an overall 12-10 advantage. Henin-Hardenne is within one win of becoming the 10th woman to win all four majors. She's won three French Opens to go with her U.S. Open and Australian Open titles.

Henin-Hardenne will be competing in her third consecutive Grand Slam final Saturday, and if not for a stomach ailment that forced her to abandon the Australian Open final against Amélie Mauresmo, she could have possibly been playing for the third leg of a calendar Slam, something only Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988) have accomplished.

After dropping her own serve Thursday and then breaking back to get to 4-all in the first set, Henin-Hardenne went on a tear, winning 14 of 15 points to take the first set and go up 1-0 in the second. Clijsters rebounded to take a 3-1 second-set lead and served to take the match into a decisive third set at 6-5 after breaking Henin-Hardenne at love.

But a shoestring backhand volley winner and two Clijsters errors sent the set into a tiebreaker. Henin-Hardenne then reeled off four straight points to get to 5-2, before closing out the match with a picture-perfect backhand passing shot.

Clijsters, 23, had said beforehand that she would try to play more aggressively, but it was just more of the same bitter medicine. Asked if she had carried out her game plan, she said, "Yeah, I think I did. I was really going for the lines. I think that's what I did really well.

"This has been the best match I played against her in the last few we've played, [but] she played well when she had to. That's what she's good at."

Henin-Hardenne, 24, echoed those thoughts shortly thereafter, saying, "Today I played my best tennis on important points and when I had to."

She was then asked about potentially facing Mauresmo in Saturday's final, a possibility confirmed when the top-seeded Frenchwoman beat No. 4 Maria Sharapova in three sets in Thursday's second semifinal. The five-time major winner sounded, as ever, equal turns proud, defiant and a tad self-absorbed.

"I don't have anything to prove to anyone anymore," Henin-Hardenne said. "I think I proved enough on the court the fighter I am, how much I can compete, you know. There's always a lot of determination. So it's just about myself, and I hope I can win this title, for sure."

Belgian journalist Filip Dewulf, a onetime French Open semifinalist who covers both players for Belgium's Het Laatste Nieuws, says the growing discrepancy in the rivalry simply comes down to desire.

"Kim told us in Flemish afterwards, 'No, I don't think I'm going to change anything.' She seems OK with not getting any better, while Justine is really pushed by her coach [Carlos Rodriguez] and is constantly working on her game and trying to improve," Dewulf said.

"Kim hasn't done that. She's No. 2 in the world, she wins titles and she doesn't [seem to] mind. They just have different characters, I guess."

Win or lose, graciousness for her opponents typically flows freely from Clijsters, and Thursday was no different. She sees something in Henin-Hardenne that their long acquaintance makes abundantly clear.

"A player who's playing with a lot of confidence and has that, you see that," Clijsters said. "You saw that when the Williams sisters were playing well. When they're down, they can always step it up a little bit."

Henin-Hardenne did just that Thursday afternoon on Centre Court, and she now finds herself just one more step from ensuring her place in the annals of the women's game. Mauresmo, though, will be highly motivated to prove that her Australian Open win in January over the debilitated Belgian was no fluke.

The stage is now set for a compelling women's final, one that should settle the question of who is currently the best player in the women's game and give tennis fans the extended version of that abbreviated final in Melbourne.

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.