After Henin, it’s the turn of Kim Clijsters to announce her retirement after the U.S. Open this summer. The end of an era: One where a kingdom three hundred times smaller than the U.S. dominated women's tennis. The 7th June, 2003, saw the first 100% Belgian final in a Grand Slam. Others were to follow, but Justine Henin will forever remain the first Belgian to win one ...
The 90’s ended with a last title at Roland Garros for Steffi Graf, bringing her impressive collection of Grand Slam titles to twenty-two. The noughties will, for their part, be shared between the Eastern girls, the Williams sisters and a Belgian duo: a Flemish (Kim Clijsters) and Walloon (Justine Henin). The legend of the two together began in 2001, during a semi-final at Roland Garros, the most valuable Grand Slam the other side of Quievrain. For this first, Clijsters went the win the match before losing in the final against Jennifer Capriati at the end of the third set (10-12). "The emergence of Justine and Kim at the same time boosted the number of registered players all over the country. The 2003 final between the two had an incredible effect in the country
" says Filip Dewulf, himself a quarter and semi-finalist in Paris in 1997 and 98.
7th June, 2003: the women’s French Open final. Together, the two players won the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas for Belgium a year and a half earlier. This clash of the superwomen in the final of a Grand Slam is the first in a series of three. Wimbledon would be the only one never to feature a 100% Belgian decider. "Kim had dominated their first meetings but Justine matured a little bit slower. Once launched, she became almost unplayable during her best years"
recalls Dominique Monami, another player from the kingdom who flirted with the top 10 in the early 00's. In spring 2003, all the Belgian royal family and a coterie of ministers went to France to attend what will remain forever one of the most important dates in Belgian sport. On her way to the final, the Fleming, then world number two, had dropped only one set, (0-6) against Magdalena Maleeva in the quarterfinals. The journey of Justine Henin-Hardenne (she was still a young bride at the time, ed.) was a little more complicated, especially her epic semi-final against Serena Williams won (7-5) in the third set.
The premature death of her mother sent Justine into another dimension
Their personalities, as well as their way to approach their passion, are very different. Henin is a Stakhanovite, ready to give everything to get where she wants to go, whereas Clijsters seems to be much more detached “You will never hear me say that I aim to be world N°1"
said the native of Bilzen. "Justine had a lot to prove. The premature death of her mother sent her to another dimension and she became incredibly determined, she didn't allow herself any weakness
" said Dewulf. Indeed, the older of the two by one year, Henin brushed aside her compatriot (6-0, 6-4) on the ochre clay of the Porte d'Auteuil... It would be the same story in Flushing Meadows and Melbourne. Ultimately Clijsters had to wait until 2005 to win her first Grand Slam (U.S. Open), now she has four on her mantelpiece and still the chance to add more this year. The Walloon bowed out with seven Grand Slams to her name plus an Olympic gold from the 2004 Athens Games. With four titles in Paris, she was the most successful female player of the 2000’s at Roland Garros...
"For us, these games between the two best players in Belgium, who were more or less in the world top 5, it was like a dream - something that only belonged to great nations. Across the country, everyone supported the players regardless of their background
” said Dominique Monami. Moreover, in the collective unconscious, like in tennis history, and regardless of the charts, the trajectories of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin seem to be inevitably linked. Like those of Borg and McEnroe, Sampras and Agassi, Federer and Nadal. The most beautiful tribute...
By Rico Rizzitelli