By Richard Pagliaro
© Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA
(June 25, 2010) Belgium's best will face off in a blockbuster Wimbledon fourth-round clash on Monday.
Continuing their shared quest for a first Wimbledon singles title, arch rivals and Fed Cup teammates Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin each scored straights-sets wins to set up a highly-anticipated round of 16 reunion between former World No. 1 players.
Hindsight is 20-20 and foresight is 50-50, said Clijsters.
"You go out there and it's 50-50," said Clijsters, who lost to Henin in the 2006 Wimbledon semifinals in her last appearance at The Championships. "Automatically when you play players, like today as well, you have that mindset, I know like a match today if I play well, I should win. But, you know, against someone like Justine or Serena, you never know. You know you have to bring your best if you want to have a chance to win. So that's what I'm going to have to do. You have to try to play your best tennis to beat the best."
They've brought out the best in each other and both believe it will take their best effort to prevail.
"What is fantastic is our story and the fact we probably pushed each other to get better," Henin said. "Km was motivation for me and I know I was motivation for her. That's why we have lot of resepct for each other. I know I will have to be very intense at my best if I want to win. She's a great fighter."
Both women looked strong on serve in registering third-round wins against seeded Russian opponents today.
Wasting no time between points, Clijsters connected on 81 percent of her first serves and surrendered serve only once in crushing No. 27 Maria Kirilenko, 6-3, 6-3.
Henin issued convincing closure in hitting four aces on her final eight serves to pound a rattled No. 12 Nadia Petrova, 6-1, 6-4.
The 17th-seeded Henin briefly squandered a 5-1 second-set lead before subduing Kristina Barrois in the second round, but she served with much greater authority today. Henin permitted only four points on her first serve against Petrova, but will face a much more formidable returner in Clijsters.
Clijsters and Henin are scheduled to square off in the "Best of Belgium" exhibition event that could break record for the most spectators at a tennis match. The match will be staged at the King Baudouin stadium in Brussels on July 8.
Organizers say the event could draw as many as 40,000 people. About 34,000 tickets will be sold to the public with 6,000 additional tickets reserved for invited guests.
If the match draws 40,000 it would break the record for most spectators at a tennis match set at the famed 1973 Battle of the Sexes match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs held at the Houston Astrodome. That match drew 30,492 fans. Organizers have invited King to serve as honorary umpire at the match
Before that potentially historic match, the pair will take the Grand Slam stage for their 25th career clash with their rivalry deadlocked at 12 wins apiece. In their lone Wimbledon meeting, Henin posted a 6-4, 7-6(4) decision in the 2006 semifinals. Overall, Henin, whose transition game and volleys are slightly better, has won three of their four grass-court meetings.
Henin has also been better in their Grand Slam encounters, posting a 5-2 record in major meetings, winning their last five major matches, including victories in the 2003 French Open final, 2003 US Open final and 2004 Australian Open final.
Yet, reigning US Open champion Clijsters has been more successful since they returned to the Tour. Henin said she launched her comeback to win Wimbledon and complete the career Grand Slam; Clijsters has reached every major final except for Wimbledon.
"Of course (winning Wimbledon) was one of the reasons (for my comeback)," Henin said. "When I saw Roger Federer win the French Open I said 'he kept fighting and he won the French Open. I never won Wimbledon maybe I should come back.' It's still a year of transition. I have to build step by step. I feel less pressure now. This year it's like I see Wimbledon with new eyes and it's just fantastic."
How does each woman view the opponent in this, the toughest and longest rivalry of their careers?
Born one year and seven days apart, they grew up less than 20 miles apart and have grown into champions. Both possess brilliant backhands and are two of the qiuckest women in tennis. Henin has more variety to her game while Clijsters hits the ball heavier and can take it a bit earlier, particularly off the backhand side.
"Growing up together, she's always been the more touchy player. She has good hands," Clijsters said. "Obviously, the slice is something she was naturally born with. You know, that's something that for me took a lot of hard more work. I think I'm naturall, obviously, I'm bigger, stronger in a sense, but I think she's improved a lot in that aspect as well. I think she's definitely improved a lot on her serve.
"You know, there's not that many differences, but there's a lot of differences, I guess. You know, she moves well. Without sounding too cocky or confident, I think also I'm not a bad mover out on court. Like I said, she has those quick hands. She brings back a lot of balls and a lot of tough balls even when you feel like you're dominating. I think that's one of her strengths."
There was a time when when the net separated them on court and a chill existed off court. Since they've grown older and spent some more time together as Belgian teammates their relationship has improved.
"Our relationship is very good," Henin said. "We can feel we grew up a lot, both of us. I mean, Kim, of course, having a baby, and the distance I took also for two years. We had a fantastic time in the Fed Cup tie together. Probably discover each other not differently than in the past, but we more adults now, and we have a lot of respect. So, of course on the court, I mean, we both want to win, but the relationship is very good.We feel we grew up a lot, both of us. We have a lot of respect. So, of course on the court, we both want to win, but the relationship is very good."
"I think we've definitely grown up. I think we've, you know, had great times together playing Fed Cup and just, you know, messaging each other on phones, teasing each other, fun, you know, relax," Clijsters said. "I think that's how I would have liked it to have always been."
If their next meeting is similar to their last two matches, it could be one of the most exciting encounters of the women's draw. Since the pair returned to the pro circuit the pair have played twice and Clijsters has won both matches in third-set tie breakers. She out dueled Henin, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(6) in the Brisbane final in January.
Belgian flags were flying for their last meeting as Clijsters and Henin staged a rousing revival of their rivalry under the bright white lights of Crandon Park at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami in April.
In a match brimming with electricity, exhilarating shot making and pressure-induced choking on both sides of the net, Clijsters showed her philanthropic side in giving up a one-set, 3-0 lead before squandering a chance to serve out the match at 5-4 in the final set.
Henin fought off three match points in the third-set tiebreaker and when she blistered a mid-court pass while Clijsters stood at net it seemed a foregone conclusion the wild card would collect her first match point.
Just when Henin was poised to pull off a comeback heist, Clijsters created yet another plot twist by pulling off a stunning stick up.
Leaning to her right, Clijsters reflexively stuck her blue Babolat racket to her left, lunging for a backhand volley that somehow scraped the ball over the net for a winner that gave Clijsters a fourth match point.
Punctuating the ensuing rally by slamming a forehand winner down the line, Clijsters capped a thrilling 6-2, 6-7(3), 7-6(6) victory in the riveting all-Belgian semifinal to reach the Sony Ericsson Open final. She went on to dismiss Venus Williams to take the title. The winner of the Henin-Clijsters fourth-round match will be favored to proceed to a potential semifinal against five-time Wimbledon winner Venus.