Belgian duo brighten title picture

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The Independent Online

A sense of déjà vu at the French Open yesterday did not extend to Crown Prince Filip of Belgium or to Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, two princesses of the tennis courts who tomorrow will duel for the honour of becoming the nation's first-ever Grand Slam singles finalist.

Many observers may view the semi-final between the Belgian teenagers as little more than a contest to find an opponent for either Martina Hingis or Jennifer Capriati on Saturday afternoon. But try telling that to 10 million Belgians, 180,000 of whom are playing members of tennis clubs.

Clijsters, 17, from Bilzen, Flanders, advanced to a place in the last four with a 6-1, 6-3 win against Petra Mandula, a Hungarian qualifier. Henin, 19, from Liege, Wallonia, defeated the Russian teenager Lina Krasnoroutskaya, 6-1, 6-2.

Henin recalled visiting Roland Garros as a nine-year-old with her mother, Françoise, and watching Monica Seles beat Steffi Graf in the 1992 final."You see, mom," she promised, "one day you'll see me playing on this Centre Court." Françoise died three years later. "My mom always believed in me," Henin said. "I know she's quite aware of what I'm doing now. She knew my ambitions. She knew my character. She knew that I really wanted to win. She was convinced that I would succeed."

Clijsters is the daughter of Leo Clijsters, the former Belgium international sweeper who helped Mechelen to win both the European Cup-Winners' Cup and the European Super Cup in 1988. "People say I have Clijsters' legs ­ just like my dad," she said.

Both players will be ranked in the world's top 10 next week, Clijsters having arrived at Roland Garros as the 12th seed and Henin seeded No 14. "Kim and me, we are close friends," Henin said. "We speak about everything. But not of tennis. I think it's so good for a little country like Belgium to have two people like us."

The Belgian contenders are from the lower half of the draw, in which Venus Williams, the second seed, Amelie Mauremo, the fifth seed, and Elena Dementieva, the seventh seed, were among the leading players eliminated in the early rounds.

Capriati, the fourth seed, won her first Grand Slam singles at the Australian Open in January, defeating Hingis in the final after the Swiss world No 1 had beaten the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, back to back. In the quarter-finals on Suzanne Lenglen Court yesterday, Capriati defeated Serena Williams, the sixth seed, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2, in a match which contained 107 unforced errors ­ 65 by Williams, the majority on her backhand.

Capriati seemed to have the match won when serving at 5-4 in the second set, only to double fault to 30-30 and again at 40-30, on her first match point. Bearing in mind that Capriati failed to convert any of eight match points before losing to Venus Williams in the Ericsson Open final in March, she must have been in turmoil yesterday as the ball floated into the net from her second serve. "I was just thinking, 'Oh shit', probably worse then that," she said.

From that point, Capriati's concentration lapsed until she broke for 2-1 in the final set. She broke a second time, for 5-2, but needed three more match points to close out the contest after an hour and 58 minutes. Serena, in common with Venus, had not played enough tennis beforehand to be considered a serious threat on the stamina-sapping clay, even though she took the precaution of withdrawing from the doubles event.

Hingis, who defeated the unseeded Francesca Schiavone, of Italy, 6-1, 6-4, was less than impressive after securing the opening set, making too many errors for comfort. "I got over-confident," she said.

In the men's singles, Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, and Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, the world's leading clay-court players, will meet in Friday's semi-finals. Kuerten, the top seed and defending champion, does not have to search far for good omens. He defeated Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarter-finals for the third time at Roland Garros yesterday ­ and after their previous contests here, last year and in 1997, the Brazilian went on to win the title.

Kafelnikov, the seventh seed, has had a fallow season, and was defeated, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4. The Russian was unable to sustain the promise of a recovery after winning the second set. "I basically played a poor tie-breaker," he said. "Couldn't hold my serve once." He then waxed sombre: "My career is almost over, every single tournament is passing by. My chances to win are less and less. If my opponent is better than me, good for him." The last sentence summed up what befell Kafelnikov yesterday.

Ferrero, the fourth seed, had too many winning shots for Lleyton Hewitt, defeating the Australian sixth seed, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1. Against Guillermo Canas in the quarter-finals, Hewitt had won a match for the first time from two sets to love down. Too much of him seemed to have been left on the court.

French Open Results

Women Singles Quarterfinals

(1) Martina Hingis (Swit) def. Francesca Schiavone (Ita) 6–1, 6–4.

(4) Jennifer Capriati (USA) def. (6) Serena Williams (USA) 6–2, 5–7, 6–2.

(12) Kim Clijsters (Bel) def. Petra Mandula (Hun) 6–1, 6–3.

(14) Justine Henin (Bel) def. Lina Krasnoroutskaya (Rus) 6–1, 6–2.

–––

Men Singles Quarterfinals

(1) Gustavo Kuerten (Bra) def. (7) Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Rus) 6–1, 3–6, 7–6(3), 6–4.

(4) Juan Carlos Ferrero (Spa) def. (6) Lleyton Hewitt (Aus) 6–4, 6–2, 6–1.

–––

Men Doubles Quarterfinals

(11) Michael Hill (Aus) and Jeff Tarango (USA) def. (1) Jonas Bjorkman (Swe) and Todd Woodbridge (Aus) 6–4, 3–6, 6–1.

Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes (Ind) def. Tomas Cibulec and Leos Friedl (Cze) 7–5, 6–4.

–––

Mixed Doubles Quarterfinals

Paola Suarez (Arg) and Jaime Oncins (Bra) def. Lisa Raymond (USA) and Leander Paes (Ind) 7–5, 6–1.

Virginia Ruano Pascual and Tomas Carbonell (Spa) def. Karina Habsudova (Slovak) and David Rikl (Cze) 6–3, 3–6, 7–5.

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