Belgian Brilliance: Clijsters edges Henin for Sydney

Brisbane International Tennis 2010
By Matthew Zemek, January 9th, 2010

There they were, two players who - at this point on the calendar 12 months ago - were out of tennis and in search of themselves. In January of 2009, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin stood to the side of the stage in women’s tennis, with Clijsters raising a toddler and Henin exploring life off the court. Two women from the same small nation who had climbed the heights on the WTA Tour were no longer part of the conversation in the sport they helped enrich.

My, how things have changed.

Clijsters and Henin now exist at the very center of the action. Serena Williams might be the queen of the major championships, and Dinara Safina might have put in the hard yards over the past two tennis seasons, but heading into the Australian Open in just one week’s time, the biggest and most buzz-filled discussions in women’s tennis are riveted on the Belgians who produced a dazzling final match in the Brisbane International on Saturday evening in Australia.

Clijsters, a two-time major champion, and Henin, a seven-time winner on the biggest stages in tennis, staged an epic battle that lasted well over two hours at Pat Rafter Arena. Illustrating the competitiveness of the match, both players earned match points - three for Clijsters, two for Henin - but when the dust had settled, it was the new mom who prevailed.

Just four months after the joys of motherhood created a more relaxed Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open in New York, the 26-year-old once again displayed the mental toughness and emotional freshness that are paying big dividends for the most resurgent player in women’s tennis.

In the past, Clijsters found a way to squander many important matches in which she was dominating, and so, when a set-and-a-break lead (up 4-1 in the second set) evaporated against her relentless countrywoman, the smart money suggested that Henin was going to remind Clijsters of the snake-bitten history that preceded marriage (to American basketball professional Brian Lynch) and the birth of her child Jada, who is one month short of her second birthday.

When Henin reeled off eight straight games to win the second set and establish a 3-0 lead in the third, the Brisbane audience couldn’t have thought that Clijsters - already the queen of one large-scale comeback to the tennis court - would be able to stage an even more remarkable fightback in this tune-up for the Australian Open.

But that’s exactly what happened: Clijsters worked her way into the third set and broke Henin when the 27-year-old veteran - in her first tournament since returning from a self-imposed sabbatical - tried to serve out the match at 6-5. The tiebreaker was razor-close, and when Clijsters ripped a forehand winner at 7-6, following a Henin double fault at 6-all, a most improbable victory landed in the lap of a transformed tennis player.

If Henin and Clijsters meet at the Australian Open, and they play a match even half as good as this one, tennis fans are in for a treat.


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