The eagerly anticipated battle of the Belgians lived up to its billing yesterday on Court One, where a fascinating duel ended with Kim Clijsters prevailing over her compatriot Justine Henin, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3.
In so doing, Clijsters edged just ahead, 13-12, in their professional head-to-heads. It is a list of matches that started in 1998, although in fact their rivalry goes much further back than that, so far that neither of them can remember when they first encountered each other – only that they were younger than 10 – nor who won.
More significantly, Clijsters has won both her matches against Henin since the latter decided to follow her out of retirement, yet as the first set unfolded in sweltering heat it seemed that Henin's superior record both on grass and at Grand Slams (she had won their last five meetings) would be telling. The 28-year-old played beautifully, and Clijsters could not find an answer either to her speed around the court, or to the devastating precision of her groundstrokes. A nasty slip, in which Henin appeared to hurt her elbow, made no apparent difference, and by the time she wrapped up the first set, it would have been hard to find anyone in the crowd willing to place so much as a euro on Clijsters emerging triumphant.
From the start of the second set, however, the boot was on the other Belgian foot. Clijsters began to find her range, and a series of wonderful rallies kept following the same pattern; Henin more and more on the defensive, Clijsters invariably thumping a winner. It seems absurd to talk about two women aged 28 and 27 rolling back the years, but some of their play yesterday evoked their fiercely contested semi-final here in 2006. Wimbledon, incidentally, remains the only Grand Slam that Henin has not won, and in which Clijsters has not reached the final. If the affable No 8 seed does end up hoisting the Venus Rosewater Dish, she will not only be the most popular of champions, but also the first mother to win the title since Evonne Cawley 30 years ago.
More immediately, though, she has the small challenge of overcoming Vera Zvonoreva in the quarter-final. The Russian yesterday knocked out the No 4 seed Jelena Jankovic, who was forced to withdraw with an injury when trailing 1-6, 0-3.