Belgians hoping to recharge
When the season began, all signs pointed to a Year of Belgium in women's tennis. The country's players began the year going a staggering 22-0 against the rest of the tour, led by comeback queens Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.
Their careers have been as entwined as their relationship has been distant, and when the two kicked off the season by contesting a spirited final in Brisbane, a return to the days of all-Belgian Grand Slam finals seemed like a distinct possibility.
Then came the fateful Fed Cup tie against Estonia in April, when reality hit -- quite literally. Henin broke the little finger in her left hand, and Clijsters suffered a foot injury that kept her off the court until this week. (Even Yanina Wickmayer, the younger Belgian hope, ended up having elbow surgery a few weeks later.)
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Henin was able to keep playing but had a bumpy ride during her favorite time of year, winning in Stuttgart but exiting in the first round of Madrid. At the French Open, playing for the fourth day in a row because of rain and darkness delays, she produced an uninspired performance against an in-form Samantha Stosur and lost in the fourth round. It was the four-time champ's first loss at the French since 2004.
Next week, they will compete at the All England Club for the first time since ending their retirements. Clijsters did play a mixed doubles exhibition on Centre Court last year, a prelude to her return after a 26-month hiatus during which she got married and had a daughter. Henin has not returned since stopping abruptly in May 2008 for what turned out to be an 18-month break.
Will Wimbledon provide the pair with renewed momentum or simply amplify the challenges that loom as the comeback glow fades?
Both have found the grass-court event the trickiest of the four majors. It is the only Grand Slam that Henin has not won, and the only one in which Clijsters has not reached a final. Of the three Grand Slam finals they played against each other in 2003 and '04, Wimbledon was the only one absent from the set.
They are playing warm-up events this week to adjust to the grass -- Clijsters in Eastbourne and Henin at Rosmalen, where she took a wild card after losing at the French Open. Winning the title at those tournaments would confirm expectations of a run deep into the second week of Wimbledon, but not that they are ready to lift the Rosewater Dish itself.
Even though Clijsters is returning from a layoff and has a less impressive track record on grass, Henin is the more unknown quantity right now.
When the 5-foot-5 "little Belgian that could" decided to come back to the tour, she and longtime coach Carlos Rodriguez worked on redesigning her game with the very purpose of improving has chances at Wimbledon. Henin has tinkered with her serve and is trying to play shorter, more aggressive points to save wear and tear on her fragile body as well as ready herself for the quick, slick grass.
But the results have been mixed. A hard-charging Henin has played well in stretches against top-notch opposition like Clijsters and Serena Williams but has also gone through error-ridden patches. In Miami, the new positioning of Henin's feet on her serve began causing hip problems, prompting a switch back to her old routine.
At the French Open, her serve placement was predictable and her second delivery erratic. During points, Henin seemed content to slug out rallies rather than use spin and variety to set up the killer blow, as she had so effectively in the past. The heavy conditions or tiredness may have played a role, but both Maria Sharapova in the third round and Stosur in the fourth round found themselves able to get into their big-hitting groove against this version of the Belgian.
"That was her forte before. She could mix it up and really get those girls out of their playing scheme and make them play uncomfortable balls," said Filip Dewulf, a former French Open semifinalist who covered the French Open as the tennis writer for Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws.
Changing a game style to any significant degree is a challenge for any player, he observed, especially after having a lot of success the old way. Henin appears to be battling with the desire to pull the trigger earlier than she is used to.
"It's not very natural for her to do that, and she lost a lot of points trying to attack the second serve, especially against Stosur," Dewulf said. " She has too many questions in her head. We all know that Justine likes to think a lot and likes to think about tactics and all that kind of stuff, but each point she's thinking, 'I have to attack,' 'I have do that,' instead of playing naturally and fluidly and more spontaneously."
Having said that, it's still early for Henin 2.0. She hopes it will all pay off in the long run and has tried to dampen expectations that she can return to the top right away. "I took this year as a year of transition," she said after her loss to Stosur. "Everyone wants to see me at the level that I was and to compete [like that], but the confidence I got in 2007, it took many years to be at that level."
Looking ahead to Wimbledon, Henin said, "I want to go as far as possible over there. But in 2010, it's probably a bit too early to say, 'Well, it's going to be my goal to win it.'"
But even this year, no one will be counting Henin out entirely. The pressure is off after the French Open defeat, and her ability to come to net and slice her one-handed backhand on the low-bouncing grass makes her a natural fit on the surface, providing she can recapture her shot-making and serve.
During her retirement, two-time finalist Henin surprisingly confessed that she had never really believed she was capable of winning Wimbledon, of defeating the Williams sisters on grass. Does she have that belief now? That will be the central question of her Wimbledon quest in this "second career."
With Clijsters, everything is more straightforward.
"It all depends on her foot, but she is not a girl that puts a lot of questions in her head, like Justine does," Dewulf said. "She just goes out there and starts hitting the ball, and if she feels well she plays well. She doesn't need a lot of practice."
Though the injury did not appear to be that serious, it was hard not to wonder how it would affect Clijsters mentally. In addition to her desire for family and normalcy, constant injuries were a big reason why the affable Belgian lost her appetite for pro tennis in the first place. It was always possible that the return of the aches and pains could lead to another loss of desire.
But not so far, it seems. Clijsters is now paying more attention to managing her physical health -- traveling with a physiotherapist, trying not to do her famous splits on court and playing only a limited schedule. This time, she's controlling her body rather than letting it control her.
"I'm lucky that I've always been a strong girl, but lucky that I've been able to learn from the injuries I've had at a young age," she said in a May conference call to promote her summer appearance in Montreal.
"I think mentally the combination of the traveling and the physical aspect is tough, but you have to be an all-around really professional athlete -- treatments, to food to sleeping patterns. It's the little details that really make a difference at the end of the day.
"You have to get through that process to learn about those kinds of things. And I think as you get older you look back and think to yourself, 'When I was younger '"
Being a wife and mother is another factor in the decision to play less and also a source of balance in the sometimes fragmented world of the pro circuit.
Both Henin and Clijsters fall into the second layer of Wimbledon contenders, somewhere in the mix with Maria Sharapova. That puts them behind the favored Williams sisters but ahead of the inconsistent pack of younger Eastern Europeans and hardy veterans who seem to rise and fall every week.
The Wimbledon committee, however, did not see fit to give them a boost in Wednesday's seeding list, leaving Clijsters at No. 8 and Henin at No. 17. That means much could depend on the draw, with a fourth-round or quarterfinal clash between the Belgians and the Williamses being a possibility, as well as a meeting between Henin and Sharapova as early as the third round.
Whatever happens, Henin and Clijsters will head back home the weeks after Wimbledon for an exhibition match against each other in Brussels. Ticket sales suggest the event has achieved its gimmicky goal of breaking tennis' attendance record, which was set at 30,472 by the "Battle of the Sexes" match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973.
It may not be the Year of Belgium after all, but the battle of Belgium looks as compelling as ever.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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