Saturday, December 31, 2005

2006 Intriguing Question #3

Dynamic duos are special, as some things just go well together. Venus and Serena. PB & J. Batman and Robin. Pork chops and apple sauce. Brad and Jen... err, I mean Brad and Angelina. Pretzels and beer. Bogie and Bacall. Kim and Justine.

Hmmm... something's wrong there.

Check that last one. "Kim and Justine" is on the wrong list (darned disorganzied files!). That one should be on the one with "apples and oranges," "oil and water," and "George W. Bush and intelligent discourse." You know, things that somehow just miss the mark when it comes to compatible co-existence. Oh, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne are both female tennis players from Belgium who admired Steffi Graf while growing up... but that's about where the similarities end.

Justine's from the French-speaking southern Wallonia region of Belgium, is happily married to husband Pierre-Yves, plays an often elegant and crafty style of game, likes to listen to Celine Dion music and visit her godfather in Montreal. Kim is from the Dutch-speaking northern Flanders region of Belgium, was infamously engaged to Aussie "bad boy" Lleyton Hewitt ('Nuff said), plays a scrambling game supported by power, likes to listen to Bon Jovi and Destiny's Child and to catch a performance of "Saturday Night Fever" when she's in New York.

Kim once charged Justine with faking an injury during a match and "disrespecting" the sport, while she herself is continually judged the "nicest" player on tour (the U.S. Open Series' marketing morons even dubbed her "Miss Congeniality"). Justine was lambasted for "waving off" a Serena Williams serve at Roland Garros (including in these parts, further proving that no Backspin opinion is unchangable if a player ingratiates herself enough), while Kim won all sorts of plaudits for squeegeeing a wet court a Flushing Meadows.

Oh, and Justine worked tirelessly to overcome her small stature, moving past early career big-match jitters to eventually become "Le Petit Taureau" (The Little Bull) because of her never-say-die, at her best when her back is against the wall in the biggest matches, grand slam champion character traits; while Kim seemed to work overtime to never quite live up to the expectations her talents placed upon her shoulders, gradually building up a history of big-match chokes that left everyone wondering if she'd EVER win a slam title. If Justine was Ms. Gut-check, then Kim was Ms. Chuck-Your-Guts.

Until last year, that is.


In 2005, the tennis dynamic that always had separated the respective careers of Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters changed dramatically. JHH won her fourth slam title at Roland Garros in June, but as injuries once again slowed her in the second half of the season, Clijsters continued her comeback from her own wrist injury to complete her hardcourt tear through the U.S. Open Series and won her first slam title at Flushing Meadows. Earlier in the year, Clijsters had also beaten her Belgian countrywoman (in their only match-up since the '04 Oz final, 24 months ago) to take a 10-9 lead in their career series. As 2005 ended, Clijsters, clearing a hurdle and living up to her talent just as JHH was going through a second straight health-impaired season, suddenly found herself with the upper hand in this sometimes-waffling relationship between Waffles.

Like Venus and Serena, the Belgians will forever be compared. With Clijsters now with a legitimate qualifying checkmark in her career column, have things changed forever between the two? Will they be seen as true equals or, gulp, will Kim surpass "The Queen?"

As tempting as it would be to say yes based on last year's evidence, Backspin's own prejudices on this subject just can't be completely restrained. It was with a grudging, yet respectful, nod that I finally succumbed to the "cult of Clijsters" late in 2005, buried her career albatross in the backyard and dubbed her "Killer Kim"... then in the closing months, with a shot at re-claiming the #1 ranking she briefly held in 2003, Clijsters lost early in Filderstadt and totally bombed out at the WTA Championships. She finished the year at #2 (she had a 66-9 WTA mark) and with a slam title in hand as the "rightful" Player of the Year, but there was a curious feeling of incompleteness surrounding her.

Sometimes self-satisfaction can serve as a slow-acting poison infecting an athlete's competitive drive. The few sharp edges Clijsters might have had could have been dulled by actually reaching the mountaintop last September.

(Needless to say, I'm like a wolf panting at the door of the Three Little Pigs as 2006 begins, ready to blow down the House of Clijsters at the first sign of a crack in the foundation supposedly built at Flushing Meadows. I can't help it. On this issue, I simply enjoy being a contrarian. It's why rather than giving continual pats on Clijsters' back for being "Nice Kim," I prefer to remind everyone of how she bailed on the Belgian Olympic Team in '04 because she didn't want to wear the uniform -- "FilaKim" at her finest, or bring up how she gave her coach a whopping $9000 bonus after winning $2.2 million for claiming the U.S. Open Series and tournament. He's now her ex-coach, by the way. I wonder why?)

Just when Clijsters should be reveling in her accomplishments and plotting greater victories ahead that will build up her career resume, what's she doing? Saying she figures she'll retire by the end of the '07 season. Ahh, the heart of a champion, huh?

Anyone else get the feeling that the only thing Clijsters had left to shoot for was taken care of at Arthur Ashe Stadium, and that it might end up being her career aberration rather than the beginning of a new chapter?

The lack of a continued desire to succeed isn't in Le Petit Taureau's vocabulary. Of course, the phrase "good health" hasn't been there too often the last two years, either. Whether it be cytomegalovirus, a knee or a hamstring, something has always been acting as an anchor on JHH's ambitions since she rose to #1 in late '03. It's a testament to her will that over that period of time she's won two slam titles, an Olympic Gold medal and compiled a 69-9 record in spite of it all. That's what a champion is made of, boys and girls.

So, maybe the dynamic hasn't really changed all that much. One slam might satisfy Clijsters, but four still isn't enough to satiate Henin-Hardenne. It's a fundamental difference in their personalities. You see, there's a reason pageants hand out "Miss Congeniality" titles... it's to give a nod to the "nice girl" since she really doesn't have what it takes to emerge as the "big" winner in the end. Hmmm, maybe those U.S. Open Series marketing morons got one of those nicknames right, after all.

Clijsters has a long way to go to have a career that would match what Henin-Hardenne has accomplished. In truth, she'll never catch up. It's already too late for the dynamic to change.

1.Clijsters will finally get back that #1 ranking sometime in the season's opening months, but she won't hold if for very long.
2.She won't win a second slam, either, losing in her one slam final appearance.
3.Clijsters will win more titles and finish higher in the year-end rankings than Hein-Hardenne.
4.After meeting just once in the last two years, JHH and Clijsters will meet at least three times in '06, with Clijsters winning the "minor" matches, but JHH winning the "biggest"...
5. ...namely, in a slam final, as JHH will run her career slam title edge over Clijsters to an "untouchable" 5-1.

All for now.


NEXT: Pride, Prejudice... and Mary Pierce


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