The joy of a comeback can never be complete until you see a very familiar figure on the opposite side of the net—your sworn rival. The déjà vu reignites the fire within and the comeback only then is felt in its entirety.
For two women who share quite a few similarities and yet have personalities as different as chalk and cheese, destiny brings them to a point where they again have to cross paths.
It was twelve years ago when teenagers Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters met on the court for the first time. Now one is 27-years-old and the other 26, yet the passion still remains the same, the spirit still intact, and the rivalry still intense as they face off for the 23rd time in the Brisbane final on Saturday.
The two gems from the tiny nation of Belgium have come a long way, but the journey hasn’t always been something worth remembering.
While Henin comes from the French-speaking Walloon region, Clijsters hails from the Flemish area. Even though they openly claim to have ‘’mutual respect’’ for each other, there have been enough instances to refute this claim.
While Clijsters has the more spontaneous and eloquent game, Henin’s game is based on pin-point accuracy and perfection.
Having experienced personal loss as early as the age of 12 and after being totally estranged from her family, the diminutive Henin has always had a more mature approach towards her game and tremendous stoicism.
But sadly for Clijsters, her terrible mental frailty had come out to the fore many a time, especially when she had to endure the humiliation of a third straight Grand Slam final loss at the Australian Open 2004 to Henin.
Justine had snatched her summit ranking and also a chance to win a Grand Slam, which was perhaps too much for Kim’s father to bear: His allusive comments against Henin added fuel to the fire already burning and fodder for the media.
The usually introverted Henin went on to amass seven Grand Slams and 41 career titles before shockingly taking a sabbatical.
In contrast, the bubbly Clijsters was content with remaining under her foe’s shadow with just one Slam and 34 titles before her own hibernation.
Even though their paths separated here with marriage and motherhood calling Clijsters and a life simply bereft of tennis for Henin, before long both had the same destination to head for—the competitive world of tennis.
Three-and-a-half years after having met for the last time at the 2006 Wimbledon semi, the comeback queens now find themselves once again standing in the way of each other—a reason for gratification for every tennis fan in this world.
The only difference between them is the fact that Clijsters had already returned to a heroes’ welcome after incredibly capturing the U.S. Open in only her third tournament last season. But for Justine, this is her very first tournament since her 18 months of dormancy.
Even though this fact might help in deciding the ultimate winner, the level of tennis at the final remains guaranteed to be high-octane, and the atmosphere inside Pat Rafter Arena will be electrifying.
Henin, granted a wild card at this event, had been slow and many a time not near her best, but that had been enough for her to dispatch four opponents on the trot.
After outclassing a talented Nadia Petrova, she had been menacing against qualifier Sesil Karantantcheva, and toiled and clawed back from behind to beat Melinda Czink.
But her most eye-popping performance had come against former World No. 1 and French Open champion Ana Ivanovic in the semis, whom she had blasted off the court in just 66 minutes.
The top seed Kim Clijsters, on the other hand, is now much more settled on the Tour and thus had been devastating in her first two rounds against Tathiana Garbin and Alicia Molik, before being severely tested against Lucie Safarova and using her experience to down Andrea Petkovic in the semis.
In Saturday’s mouth-watering final, the white-capped Belgian faces possibly her sternest test till now and the first reality check.
The in-form Clijsters is now mentally stronger and is sure to take advantage of Henin’s weak first serves and the double faults that she had consistently been smattering throughout the week.
The Brisbane final presents the perfect opportunity for the younger Belgian to better the head-to-head record, which stands at 12-10 in favour of the seven-time Grand Slam champion.
Having said that, Henin is a player who consistently thrives under pressure. For a player of her stature this is all too familiar, and her performance against Czink testifies that she still has ample resilience when needed.
But the fact that Clijsters had already spent a few months on court and that Henin’s game relies heavily on meticulous practice and precision might tilt the balance in the U.S. Open champion’s favour.
Saturday’s fascinating showdown thus is a must-watch and sets the tone for many good things to come in WTA tennis for the rest of the year.
My Prediction: Kim Clijsters in three sets.