What a way to get up at the crack of dawn on a snow-drenched, five-below-zero Saturday morning? With a plunge into the glimmering swimming pool that is tennis as played between Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.
For it was not just the court, the surrounds, the arena, and the officials that suggested the blue of a chilly, clear, indoor pool. The tennis itself woke up the senses, invigorated the brain, sharpened the appetite—like dropping into fresh water on a hot day.
It was, of course, destined to be such a match and to produce such drama.
Two Belgian women who chose to retire while at the height of their powers.
Two champions playing one another for the first title of the year.
Two exponents of women’s tennis as it should be played, with fire, with pace, and with variety.
The first set burst into life with both women playing their own brand of tennis at its best.
Clijsters powered her double-fisted backhand down the line like a bullet. She swung it deep across the court like a laser. She whipped it with top-spin out wide at wicked angles. Nothing was impossible.
She did the same with her forehand: outrageously strong, deep, and through the court towards the back corners.
Safe overhead, quick to pick up drop-shots, she did her occasional signature splits in her urgency to reach a ball, but more often used light footwork to seek out and return the widest of balls.
Henin returned in kind. Stylistically so different, but delivering the same depth, pace, and accuracy.
Her power was generated by perfect timing and technique, and by feeding off the pace of her opponent to perfection.
Her crisp forehand drives demanded the most perfect response from her opponent. Her backhand, surely the most beautiful in tennis, wielded with her single right arm, whipped huge drives deep to the baseline.
Her sliced cross-court sweep, so often used by other players in defence, was used by Henin for pure attack, and she was able reproduce it over and over again.
The first set was of outstanding quality, with points taken by outright winners rather than unforced errors. However, Clijsters had just a little too much power, just a little more pace than Henin, and achieved a break that saw her through in 39 minutes.
She went on to break Henin in the first game of the second set, and rushed ahead to a 4-1 lead. Was it the tension that got to her, or tiredness, or the knowledge that she was playing one of the gutsiest, most tenacious women of the last decade?
Suffice to say, Henin began her comeback, Clijsters buckled, and the match went all square, one set apiece.
Henin, as dangerous in this first match out of retirement as she ever was, kept her foot down to cash in on a Clijsters who looked all in. The tournament wild-card took eight games in a row to lead 3-0 in the deciding set.
Clijsters couldn’t buy a first serve, and could barely win a service point. At one stage she managed just two points in four games.
But it was as though the pair of them had reached a pact before the match started, for they could not have put together a more dramatic narrative.
First Clijsters pulled back to equal the score. Then she missed a smash to concede another break. Henin immediately returned the compliment, and the match headed for an inevitable tie-break.
And what a tie-break…
But before that nerve-tingling finale, it’s worth a moment to stand back and absorb the contrasting appearances of the women. They are at the root of their differing playing styles, and added an extra dimension to their particular drama.
As if—again—prearranged, they both wore the serene colours of the court. Clijsters was head to toe in white but with highlights of sky-blue, like opalescent currents in a shallow pool. Her flaxen shock of hair was, as always, knotted into a tight ball, giving her the youthful look of a teenager with the physique of a mature woman. Her pale skin flushed across the cheeks, her light blue eyes took in her surroundings with a steady sweep.
Henin, with the slightly shorter, slightly tighter build, looked sharp in a navy top and trim skirt. Nothing softened the crisp, business-like imagery, not even a sweat band: Instead, a statement watch on the left wrist, a restraining white cap keeping her sleek hair in place.
Her angled cheeks, the lightest of brown, had a sheen rather than a flush. Her darkest of brown eyes cast intense glances across the court.
But they both smiled at streaky shots, at ridiculous winners, at lucky drops, at careless over-strikes. Camaraderie and rivalry: the conclusion of this match in a nutshell.
Clijsters carried her new-found confidence into the first points of the tie-break to lead 4-0 and then 5-1.
Once again, Henin battled back to equal the score at 6-6, overcoming match points on the way. Clijsters—and the whole arena—thought she had won the match with a fierce drive that appeared to clip the side-line. It was called out, and there is no hawk-eye in Brisbane.
At the next time of asking, though, her forehand was a winner, and Clijsters took the tie-break 8-6, winning the match in a little under two-and-a-half-hours.
The women received a standing ovation that continued long after they took their seats. Then, just when the crowd thought the occasion could get no more emotional, it was revealed that Clijsters had decided, ahead of the final, to donate her winnings to the children’s hospital she had visited during the week.
One more standing ovation: a few more tear-filled eyes.
It was a moving and thrilling conclusion.
It was a shot in the arm for the women’s tour.
And it was a reminder that few players, other than the Williams, have the game to match either Belgian.
Though there is a third Belgian, Yanina Wickmayer, who may have something to say about that. She was winning in Auckland while her compatriots were heading for Brisbane’s final.
It makes you wonder what they are putting in the Belgian water.
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