Clijsters and Henin set for latest episode in Belgian rivalry

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The Independent Online

The careers of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters have followed intertwining paths ever since the two Belgians first faced one another, aged nine and eight, in a junior tournament in Ostend.

On Monday their paths will cross again when they meet in the fourth round here. It will be their 25th meeting – they have 12 wins apiece – and their first in a Grand Slam tournament since Henin won in the semi-finals here four years ago.

It could be quite a match. Neither player has dropped a set over the first three rounds and both reached the last 16 with convincing victories over Russians. Henin beat Nadia Petrova, the No 12 seed, 6-1, 6-4, while Clijsters crushed Maria Kirilenko, the No 27 seed, 6-3, 6-3.

The fact that both Belgians have come back from retirement in the last year is one of many parallels. They both broke into the world's top 100 in 1999 and the top 10 two years later. Clijsters, from the Flemish-speaking part of the country, became world No 1 in August 2003; Henin, from French-speaking Liège, did the same two months later.

They even suffered major health problems at around the same time. In 2004 Henin went down with cytomegalovirus, a debilitating illness which laid her low for 18 months, while Clijsters had surgery on her left wrist. Clijsters retired three years ago to start a family and Henin quit 12 months later, only for both to return in the last year.

Clijsters has won both meetings since their comebacks, but each went to third set tie-breaks. Henin has the better record at SW19, having lost in two finals here, while Clijsters has reached two semi-finals.

"She's always been the player with more touch," Clijsters said. "She has good hands. Obviously I'm bigger, stronger in a sense, but I think she's improved a lot in that aspect as well."

Henin described her rival as "a real fighter" and added: "Kim is very powerful, but she's moving very well and has big weapons in her game."