For the third time in a Grand Slam final, the private dispute between Belgians that has, for now at least, upstaged the hegemony of the Williams sisters went the way of the Walloon representative, Justine Henin-Hardenne, who again defeated the Fleming girl, Kim Clijsters, at the Australian Open.
Unlike last year's French and US Open finals, when Henin swept Clijsters aside in straight sets, this was a much closer affair, with Kim defying a left-ankle injury to recover from daunting deficits in the second and third sets, only to end up beaten 6-3 4-6 6-3 in one hour 47 minutes in the Melbourne sunshine.
It was the first time Henin had lifted the Daphne Akhurst Trophy, a cup named after the woman who was Australian champion five times in the 1920s, but the 5ft 6in 21-year-old is now in possession of three of the four Grand Slam championships and is a worthy world No 1.
If Serena Williams, who holds the Wimbledon title, the only one not currently in Henin's hands, comes back strong from her knee operation and a seven-month absence, the season ahead promises much, especially in view of the two women's acrimonious clash at the French Open last June, when Serena was reduced to tears by having to cope with what she felt was blatant gamesmanship as well as crowd bias.
Having lost her mother to cancer at the age of 12 and become estranged from a father she refuses to speak to, Henin has, perforce, turned into a tough cookie, and her inclination to carry matters to the very edge, and sometimes over it, was revealed again yesterday at a crucial moment in the third set. Having battled from 2-4 down to win the second set and level the match, Clijsters induced a major Henin wobble by turning a 0-4 third-set deficit into 3-4.
Serving for 4-4, Clijsters betrayed her own cause by twice double-faulting on game point. When Henin moved to break point, Kim's reaction was to unleash a ferocious drive volley and greet what she regarded as a winner with upraised clenched fist. There was no call from the baseline judge, but Henin reacted vociferously and, some might say, typically, by indicating the ball had been long. The French umpire, Sandra de Jenken, promptly overruled to give the point and, in effect, the championship to Henin, who led 5-3 with her serve to follow.
Television replays showed the Clijsters volley hitting the baseline but Henin, hugging her trophy and relishing her victory, was adamant she had been right. "That's why I said it was long, from my point of view," she maintained. "The umpire was pretty sure, too. I haven't seen the TV but right now I don't care too much about that."
While insisting "I am not the sort of player that's going to start complaining after matches," Clijsters agreed that TV evidence showing the shot was good had sharpened her disappointment at losing her fourth Grand Slam final, one to Jennifer Capriati at the 2001 French Open and three in the last nine months to Henin.
"I'm not going to blame the umpire because everyone makes mistakes," the 20-year-old added. "But, yeah, of course it's disappointing. I've been playing for 12 years now, and as soon as I hit the ball I know if it's going in or out. I definitely had the feeling it was good, but there's nothing I can do about it now."
Nor was there much Clij-sters could do about the last game, with Henin pumped up to hit some inspired shots and fall to her knees on the court's harsh surface on the winning one, the racket which had served her so well discarded as she wept for joy.
Good sport that the world knows she is, Clijsters jogged smilingly to the net, but the frustration could not be entirely suppressed. The force with which Kim went cheek to cheek knocked back the startled Henin's head.
In the match itself, it was Clijsters who was knocked back by the irresistible combination of skill and power flowing from Henin's racket, though it was Clijsters's errors which cost her the two service breaks which decided the opening set. With the black commercial flashes on each shoulder of her red dress resembling military epaulettes, Henin continued in command, and when she captured the Clijsters serve for a third time to lead the second set 4-2 a disappointing final seemed on the cusp of conclusion.
But, finally allying accuracy to her hammer-hitting, Clij-sters started to force errors from the previously perfect Henin and, encouraged by her fiancé, Lleyton Hewitt, and his golfing mate Greg Norman seated alongside him, swept four games in succession to level the match.
Henin upped her own game several notches to lead the final set 4-0. Cue another rousing revival from Clijsters. The margin was cut to 4-3, and it would have been 4-4 save for those double-faults. Then came Henin's appeal, the umpire's concurrence and a result which the audience, who have taken "Aussie Kim" to their hearts, took bravely on the chin.
While Justine talked cheerfully of turning her attention to Wimbledon, the one title not yet in her handbag, Kim said she would now give a couple of weeks' rest to her dodgy ankle. As for a first Grand Slam one day, who knows? "I don't really plan to have a long career," she confided, "because I wouldn't mind having a family as well."Reuse content