The graciousness with which Kim Clijsters accepted defeat in Saturday's Australian Open final could not mask her disappointment at losing her third Grand Slam showdown in eight months to her compatriot, Justine Henin-Hardenne.
The rivalry between the two Belgians is set to intensify following Henin-Hardenne's 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory at Melbourne Park, promising a power struggle to rank alongside that of the Williams sisters.
For the moment, Henin-Hardenne has the edge, thanks to her more lethal and consistent game and her psychological advantage as a proven champion. The world No 1 won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open last June, subsequently adding the US Open and now the Australian to her collection.
Each victory came at the expense of Clijsters, who has yet to translate talent and hard work into an ability to hold her nerve on crucial points in big matches. On Saturday that fragility was apparent once again, but luck was also against the 20-year-old No 2 seed.
Down 2-4 in the second set after losing the first, she won the next four games to square the ledger at one set all. She then gave away the next four before recovering again, breaking the 21-year-old Henin-Hardenne twice and serving to level the third set at 4-4. Then she stumbled, producing two double-faults on game points, followed by a forehand volley on break point that appeared to nick the baseline.
Henin-Hardenne did not agree, signalling that the ball was long; the line judge made no call but the chair umpire gave the older woman the game and the opportunity to serve out the match. The champion was booed. Television replays showed the ball had been in.
Characteristically, Clijsters refused to blame the umpire's decision or a niggling ankle injury for another second-place result. The most she would say about the former was that it was "disappointing". She praised her opponent, saying: "She didn't give me anything for free. She makes you go for so many shots which are not natural for a lot of players. She keeps bringing them back." Henin-Hardenne also suffered from nerves during the match, which she said was the toughest she had ever played. She attributed it to the stress of competing as top seed, together with the crowd's vociferous support of Clijsters, adopted as an honorary Australian since she became Lleyton Hewitt's fiancée.
"I was feeling very tense," she said. "But two years ago, or 12 months ago, this kind of match, I wasn't coming through. I wasn't winning, for sure. Today I did. So a great evolution. I'm not afraid any more." The pressure on Clijsters to make the same transition from great player to champion is all the more acute given the short time-frame in which she hopes to achieve it. She is keen to have children, and may retire in two to three years.
Henin-Hardenne, meanwhile, is riding a wave of confidence that could conceivably deliver her the Wimbledon title and membership of the élite club of players to have won all four Grand Slams. "It's going to be another goal," she said. "If it comes once in my career, that's great. I want to win, for sure, all the Grand Slams." Whether or not that happens, it seems certain that she and Clijsters will continue to dominate the women's game - a remarkable scenario given that they hail from a country of 10 million people, with no great tennis tradition.
The gap between the Belgians and the rest was highlighted by the string of one-sided matches in the run-up to the final. True, Jennifer Capriati was absent, Amélie Mauresmo withdrew injured and Venus Williams was woefully ill-prepared. But many observers considered the women's tournament to be one of the worst in recent Grand Slam history.
Venus and her sister, Serena, represent the big imponderable. Serena is still recovering from an injury that has kept her out of action since she won Wimbledon last year, and Venus's comeback at the Open was short-lived. But if and when they return to the circuit in earnest, wielding their power game and aura of invincibility, they will rearrange the landscape once again.
* Martina Navratilova plans to play in the last three Grand Slam tournaments this year before finally ending her illustrious career. The 47-year-old American said she had played her last tournament in Australia after she and Leander Paes were beaten 6-1, 7-6 by Nenad Zimonjic and Elena Bovina in the Australian Open mixed doubles final yesterday. "I just wanted to go out on a winning note," said Navratilova, the winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles. "Losing in the final really stinks. I'm not saying goodbye to Australia, I'm just saying goodbye to tennis here." The American, who began playing on the women's tour in 1973, has also won 173 women's doubles titles and nine mixed doubles grand slam crowns.
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