Li finds Clijsters' hard centre tough to crack

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The Independent Online

For the third time in a Grand Slam semi-final, but the first time in any round at Wimbledon, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne will tomorrow engage in a battle of the Belgians. The prize will either be a first Wimbledon final for Clijsters, or a second for Henin-Hardenne, who was runner-up to Venus Williams five years ago. Either way, the old joke about there being no famous Belgians will be consigned to history.

Neither woman had the easiest of passages into the last four yesterday, especially Clijsters, who was pushed hard by Li Na, the first Chinese payer to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final, and on her debut here to boot. Li played splendidly, and at 5-2 and 30-0 up in the second set, looked odds-on to take the match into a deciding set.

At 5-3 she held set point. But in losing 6-4, 7-5 she was not the first to find that Clijsters, though from the land of the chocolate truffle, has a decidedly hard centre. The second seed gritted her teeth, and, although she struggled at times with the wind that suddenly kicked up - south-west London's equivalent of the Mistral, given the decidedly Provencale temperature - she won the next five games with some formidable hitting.

The match represented a neat reversal of their respective countries' images: plucky little China against big, bellicose Belgium. Yet Li gave almost as good as she got. The 24-year-old strikes the ball with old-fashioned welly, and there was one marvellous point in the first set when, following an exchange of baseline howitzers, she somehow conjured a winning lob. Clijsters, one of the more gracious of competitors, sank to her knees in disbelief, then turned and clapped. The Centre Court crowd rewarded both the tennis and the sportsmanship with thunderous applause.

There was a palpable sense that this would not be Li's last time in the venerable arena. If she had a problem, it was perhaps too much adrenaline; too often she hit the ball just a shade over the baseline. But she is already the first Chinese woman to enter the world's top 30, and is at the vanguard of what might, in a few years, be compared with the Russian invasion of Wimbledon. There are currently five other Chinese in the women's top 100 and, although it took until 1992 for a Chinese woman, Li Fang, to reach the third round of a Grand Slam, it has happened seven times since 2000. Make no mistake, the Chinese are coming.

But the Belgians are here already, and Henin-Hardenne earned her place in the semi-final by beating the Frenchwoman Séverine Brémond, the first qualifier to reach the last eight here since 1999, 6-4, 6-4.

Theirs too was a hard-hitting encounter, but what distinguished it from just about any women's singles match played so far was that each player was a Mrs, and each favours the single-handed backhand. All it needed to finish the journey back in time was wooden rackets and Peter West presenting the TV coverage.

At first it looked as though the Belgian would prevail easily, for she broke Brémond's serve in the first game and then held her own. But the gutsy 26-year-old from Montpellier - who married her coach, Eric Brémond, last September - refused to be overwhelmed. She broke back to level at 2-2.

At 3-2 to Brémond there then followed a sequence of four love-games, three of them won against the serve, before the third seed closed out the set. The second set was similarly hard-fought, with some interesting sound effects. "Allez Séverine!" cried Brémond's fans in the crowd, competing for volume with Maria Sharapova's shrieks in her Centre Court match against Elena Dementieva, which was being broadcast, a little too loudly, on Henman Hill.

Whether it is Sharapova or Amélie Mauresmo who awaits in Saturday's final, neither Clijsters nor Henin-Hardenne will make the mistake of thinking that far ahead. The tally between them in Grand Slam semi-finals stands at one-all, both in the French Open; Clijsters won in 2001, Henin-Hardenne this year. But altogether on tour they have played one another 21 times, which makes it all the more remarkable that they have never met here.

The pair are said to have an occasionally fractious relationship, which Clijsters denies. "My feeling towards her has never changed, it has always been the same," she said. "I've always been nice to her. I've always been myself with her." As for what will be required on court, she said simply: "Against Justine you have to expect every ball to come back."

Let the battle of the Belgians commence.