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Friday, September 25, 2009

Clijsters, Henin: Next year will be like old times

U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters and newly un-retired Justine Henin have doubled up to make sure that tennis talk includes the word "Belgian" again.

"And don't forget Yanina," Clijsters said of Yanina Wickmayer, a teenager who seemingly came out of nowhere to reach the semifinals of the U.S. Open. "The hype of Belgian tennis was created a little bit again."

Winning the U.S. Open barely three tournaments into her comeback has shot Clijsters up to No. 17 in the rankings, with Wickmayer racing up to No. 22. If Henin, who announced her return Tuesday after a 16-month retirement, plays somewhat to the form that made her a seven-time Grand Slam champion, she'll also be heading toward No. 1 soon enough.

"It'd be great to have three Belgian girls in the top 20," Clijsters said in an interview with The Associated Press.

And the groundswell of support is there again. Once Clijsters retired in 2007, and Henin followed one year later, tennis fell back to its typical place in Belgium , way behind soccer and cycling in the hearts of fans.

"It is absolutely super. All this is alive again," said Billie Hernalsteens, a recreational player in Buizingen who was often glued to the television set when Clijsters and Henin dominated Grand Slam events over the past decade. "Those are the kind of matches I would not miss for the world. When the Belgians play, I'll watch again."

With Henin at 27 and Clijsters only 26, the rivalry could last for years to come.

Henin's announcement to return had been anticipated for weeks, and took hold of the front pages as more rumors surfaced that she had started training hard again, much harder than for the exhibition matches she was ostensibly preparing for.

Then, Henin found her tongue tied early this month, when Clijsters and Wickmayer kept on winning in Flushing Meadows.

"I decided to postpone everything when I saw the results of Kim and Yanina coming in," she said, preferring not to take the spotlight during their moment of glory.

Now that everything is official, Clijsters only has one message for Henin: "Bring it on, I would say. She is obviously a great player and I think for women's tennis and for Belgian tennis, it is great."

Even though Henin leads 12-10 in their head-to-heads overall, when it comes to Grand Slams, Henin dominates 5-2 and has won the last five. And before Clijsters made her successful Grand Slam return in New York, Henin led 7-1 in Grand Slam titles won.

"Just too bad she was often the better when it came to Grand Slams," Clijsters said.

Clijsters' former coach Marc Dehous is convinced their rivalry might be renewed as soon as the Jan. 18-30 Australian Open, telling VRT network "the fans can look forward toward another golden era. ... And why not start with a final during the Australian Open."

Clijsters realizes Henin might have recovered her touch and stamina as quickly as she has.

"I don't think she will need months to find her groove," Clijsters added. "She'll produce great tennis again when she gets to Australia."

An all-Belgian Grand Slam final would have sounded preposterous earlier this year, when both players were still slumbering in retirement. Now, the rivalry between these ever-so-different personalities is heating up again.

It all started a decade ago when Henin won the first one between rookie teenagers. Soon, they were playing in the 2001 French Open semifinals.

"It was as if a bomb had exploded," Clijsters said of the massive media and fan interest, as Belgian flags swarmed the stands in Paris. Two years later, even King Albert II traveled to Paris when Henin beat Clijsters in the final at Roland Garros.

Clijsters was always the happy-go-lucky player, a mix of mirth and mastery whose smile was just as wide after losing a final as winning one. Henin was always the complicated one, having to recover from losing her mother at an early age and single-mindedly pursuing victory at almost any cost.

The same traits still come through so many years later. Happy in motherhood, Clijsters said she would now take her career "one season at a time." Henin, meanwhile, is already looking at the 2012 Olympics with a determination that has marked her entire career.

And while the stars fight it out, Wickmayer will be able to develop in their shadows with none of the media hype Clijsters and Henin had to endure.

"It is perhaps a positive thing for her," Clijsters said. "There is only talk about me and Justine, but Yanina has performed great."

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