Nation gets its first Grand Slam champion today, but Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne already feel like winners.
By Associated Press
Published June 7, 2003
PARIS - Here is a French twist: For the first time since the 2002 Australian Open, someone other than a Williams will play in a women's Grand Slam final.
As an alternative, the French Open presents the first all-Belgian final in a major tournament, with No. 2 seed Kim Clijsters facing No. 4 Justine Henin-Hardenne. King Albert and Queen Paola of Belgium will be part of the crowd today, ready to applaud their nation's first Grand Slam champion.
"It's going to be a fantastic day for both of us and for Belgium, and I think for all the people who will be in the stadium and all around the world," Henin-Hardenne said. "We'll try to enjoy it 100 percent."
The matchup may not signify the end of the Williams family's domination, but it is at least an interruption. Inspired in the semifinals by a raucous crowd that wanted a new champion, Henin-Hardenne upset Serena Williams to end her 33-match winning streak in major events.
Venus Williams, beaten by her sister in the past four Grand Slam finals, lost in the fourth round to 18-year-old Russian Vera Zvonareva.
"Everybody's happy today but the Williams sisters," Henin-Hardenne said. "It's good to see different faces at the end of this kind of tournament."
Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne have been on the verge of winning major titles before. They met in the semifinals at Roland Garros two years ago, when Clijsters was 17 and Henin-Hardenne 19.
Clijsters rallied from a 6-2, 4-2 deficit for the victory, then was two points from winning the title against Jennifer Capriati before losing the longest third set in a French Open final 12-10.
A month later, Henin-Hardenne reached her first Grand Slam final, losing to Venus at Wimbledon.
Both had their moments this year. Clijsters led Serena Williams 5-1 in the third set of the Australian Open semifinal and held two match points before losing. Henin-Hardenne upset Williams in the final at Charleston, S.C., in April, ending the American's bid to go undefeated this year.
The French finalists have been friendly rivals since before they were teenagers.
"It's always a little bit different playing Justine, because we know each other so well and we grew up together," Clijsters said. "If I play her, you just try to go into that match and not worry about who you're playing, just try to focus on yourself and make sure that you get the best out of yourself."
The Belgians have played 12 matches against each other, including three this year. Clijsters leads the rivalry 7-5, but on clay Henin-Hardenne has a 3-1 edge, including a three-set victory in the Berlin final May 11.
"Kim is No. 2 in the world," Henin-Hardenne said. "She's probably going to be the favorite."
Clijsters grew up in Flemish-speaking Flanders, while Henin-Hardenne is from a French-speaking southern area of Belgium. But rather than dividing loyalties among Belgium's 10-million residents, the two have won praise as unifying forces for the nation.
"I feel 100 percent Belgian," Henin-Hardenne said. "Some people see the difference. I think in Flanders, people like me.
"Having two Belgian players in the finals is fantastic. That's the important thing."