A Fateful Friday: The Belgian Perspective

23 Jan 2010 by Matthew Zemek in Australian Open 2010
Kim Clijsters

Kim Clijsters

In the bottom half of the women’s draw at the 2010 Australian Open, two clear storylines are emerging after a fateful Friday in Melbourne.

While Serena Williams and Venus Williams do battle in the top half of the draw, en route to a potential semifinal showdown, the bottom half of the women’s field has proven to be especially intriguing. Belgian and Russian players are grabbing headlines Down Under, and in this post, we’ll look at day five of the Australian Open through the eyes of Belgium:

When this tournament began, no one in women’s tennis - not even Serena Williams, a major tournament dominatrix - had been displaying more confidence than Kim Clijsters. The new mom, who won the most recent major title at the 2009 U.S. Open, defeated Justine Henin to win in Brisbane a few weeks ago. That gutsy 3-set victory over her fellow countrywoman stamped Clijsters as a popular pick to win her first Australian Open and affirm herself as a heavyweight in her sport.

There was, admittedly, a lingering amount of concern about Clijsters’s nerves entering this event. When she won last September in New York, the 26-year-old was so happy to simply be back on a tennis court that she didn’t feel the pressure of major tournament competition. After going through an offseason and preparing for more scrutiny in 2010, Clijsters rediscovered a tennis environment in which everyday exposure creates a different mental dynamic. Her U.S. Open experience was a joyride, but this visit to the Southern Hemisphere was a business trip loaded with expectations.

A number of observers - including this one - felt that if Clijsters met Henin once again in the quarterfinals, nerves would enable Henin to advance. Amazingly, however, that all-Belgian matchup - which seemed likely once Henin fought past Elena Dementieva in the second round - will not take place in a few days.

Clijsters produced a baffling, body-snatched brand of tennis in a shockingly decisive 6-0, 6-1 loss to Nadia Petrova in Friday’s third-round match at Hisense Arena. Just when an all-Belgium battle was beginning to come into focus, Clijsters’s awful outing sharply altered the calculus of this event.It’s not hard to imagine what Clijsters will face for the rest of this season. The new mom will be peppered with questions about her mental toughness when she visits the French Open in May. As grand as her comeback proved to be last summer in New York, Kim Clijsters has quickly been reminded of the demons that plagued the pre-hiatus phase of a lucrative but still incomplete career.
The woman who held up her part of the bargain on Friday was Justine Henin. The unseeded 27-year-old, given a wild card for the tournament, stared down death - and the ferocious groundstrokes of 27th-seeded Alisa Kleybanova - to advance to the fourth round with a gutsy 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 triumph at Hisense Arena.
Henin was getting blasted off the court by her 20-year-old opponent for one and a half sets, and when the young underdog raced to a 3-1 lead in the second set and gained 15-40 on Henin’s serve, it seemed that the Clijsters-Henin quarterfinal matchup was going to be denied from Henin’s side of the divide.

Instead, the Belgian with a deserved reputation for perseverance reminded tennis fans just how resilient she can be. Henin fought off those two break points at 1-3, held for 2-3, and eventually won the second set when an increasingly nervous Kleybanova double faulted.

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A contentious third set was on serve through the first five games, as the two players exchanged one service break apiece, but when Henin’s variety and all-court game forced a few errors from the No. 27 seed in the sixth game of the set, a light in the Ukrainian’s eyes seemed to dim. Henin broke for 4-2 and closed out the match shortly thereafter, advancing to the fourth round on the strength of her indomitable will.

There will be an all-Belgian battle in this tournament, it must be noted. It will simply arrive one round earlier than many expected.

Yanina Wickmayer, a semifinalist at the 2009 U.S. Open, has gone 11-0 since she overcame a mighty scrap with officials from both a Belgian anti-doping tribunal and the International Tennis Federation. Belgian authorities and the ITF imposed a one-year ban on Wickmayer last November for violating anti-doping rules and regulations.

However, that ban was overturned in December, and it’s clear how much the 20-year-old is relishing her reprieve. Wickmayer moved into the fourth round and secured a date with Henin by outlasting Italy’s Sara Errani, 6-1, 6-7 (4), 6-3, at Margaret Court Arena.

Abundant action is enveloping Belgium’s tennis stars in Australia. Kim Clijsters took an unexpected tumble, but with Justine Henin and Yanina Wickmayer leading the charge, at least one native of this small country will reach the Australian Open quarterfinals.

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