BACKSPIN TIME CAPSULE: 2003 & 2005 U.S. Open
(eighth in a series)
No one could have ever expected it. That not one, but two women from the tiny nation of Belgium would simultaneously emerge and rise to the top of women's tennis.
Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin were very different, though, and not just because they came from quite different regions of their nation, either.
Clijsters was a flexible defensive artist known for her hustle and two-handed backhand. Henin developed into a dominating offensive force despite her diminutive size, blessed with surprising power and the most beautiful one-handed backhand in the sport. "Nice Kim" quickly became a fan favorite with her ever-present smile and friendly gestures, but for far too long won no slam titles. (Just the mention of her champagne bribe... err, I mean "gift," to fans used to raise my blood pressure to an unhealthy level.) Henin often rankled traditionalists, with her intense desire to win at nearly all costs. (Don't even get me started on those past absurd pronouncements about how her retirement from the '06 Australian Open final would "tarnish" her career forever. Oh, please, Ms. Shriver. Puh-leeze.)
The career patterns for both Belgians seemed to be set from the start. They both made their WTA tour debuts in the same Antwerp event in 1999. Clijsters lost in qualifying, then entered the main draw as a "lucky loser" and reached the quarterfinals. Henin won the title. Clijsters was the first to have a shot at a slam singles crown, reaching the 2001 Roland Garros final (after defeating Henin in the semis), losing to Jennifer Capriati in an epic 12-10 deciding 3rd set. Henin would win her first slam title in Paris two years later, then cement her place in tennis history later that summer with a classic U.S. Open nighttime semifinal win over Capriati... then go on to defeat Clijsters in the final. Henin won eight slam titles to Clijsters' one. She was 5-2 against her in slams, 3-0 in slam finals. In their final eleven match-ups, Henin went 8-3 to put her career head-to-head advantage over her countrywoman at 12-10.
"Good." "Bad." Choker. Champion. Too easily excused. Often unfairly overlooked.
At least that's an example of the no-shades-of-gray line of reasoning that I liked to employ when I was writing about the Belgians early in this decade. While Henin secured her place as one of the sport's greats, Clijsters very nearly went down as the best player to never lift a slam singles trophy. I loved the idea of the undersized Henin displaying an oversized heart to become the queen of the sport, and truly bristled at how she was too many times overshadowed by Clijsters, who was continually lauded in media circles even while she made a habit of blowing golden opportunities to win slam titles for so long, simply because she was "too nice" to be legitimately criticized for her career's shortcomings.
As I look back at how I covered Henin's 2003 U.S. Open title, and then Clijsters' belated, reputation-saving one in Flushing Meadows in '05, it's obvious that I took sides in this argument, and was ever-so-firmly in the corner of "La Petit Taureau" (maybe even to a fault). I remember how I felt then, and offer no apologies now for my anti-Clijsters stance of the era... but I guess I WAS a bit more akin to a terrier with a meat-scented plush toy than I'd realized.
Anyway, here's what I said after the Belgians took New York City... twice:
"Queen Justine" (September 8, 2003)
I think I'm in love with Justine Henin-Hardenne... well, at least the idea of her. But more on that later. I have some unfinished business to take care of.
Today, I finally get to shout it from the rooftop of Tennisrulz Headquarters. Not to be childish and say "I told you so," but... I told you so.
Okay, can we now finally lay to rest all the gibberish about Kim Clijsters deserving her #1-ranking? To all the mealy-mouthed commentators of the past two weeks who walked with tender feet around the issue as if she had nothing to justify, that judging her on her checkered history of big stage chokes was somehow unfair, let me say this: You were wrong. Just because she's "a nice girl" doesn't, in turn, mean she can't be criticized. The truth is that while her attitude and personality might seem good for the game, her continual tendency to take headers off various grand slam stages is not... and the ladder is more important than whether or not the so-called #1 player is willing to squeegee Arthur Ashe Court during a rain delay.
The US Open eliminated any argument about whether or not Clijsters is the "best" player in the game. She's not even close at the moment -- she's not even the best player in Belgium. To hold that title, one must do so from head to toe. For all of Clijsters' talent, she fails that test before it even gets to eye level.
In Flushing Meadows on Saturday, Clijsters once again fumbled her every advantage. In Melbourne, it was a 5-1 3rd set lead. At Wimbledon, it was an injured opponent. In Paris, Clijsters didn't even bother to show up at all.
At the US Open, it was an odd combination of the previous three slams as Henin-Hardenne was coming off a knock-down, drag-out SF against Jennifer Capriati that lasted until 12:30am and kept her at the USTA Tennis Center until 2:30am (she was listed as "questionable" to play at all mid-day Saturday). Whether JHH was going to be able to put forth a full effort was debatable... yet she quickly had Clijsters down 0-3 in the 1st set. Clijsters rallied and held two set points at 5-4, but failed to break JHH's serve. Instead, she was broken herself in the next game and ultimately lost the set 5-7. When she was broken to start the 2nd (not once, but twice)... well, the scriptwriter was already typing "FADE OUT" at that point.
So, now the image of Clijsters virtually wetting her pants at Flushing Meadows enters the collective memory. Pardon the bathroom vulgarity, but I'm just calling a spade a spade. To paraphrase baseball legend Yogi Berra, tennis is 90% mental... and the other 50% is physical.
Thus, Henin-Hardenne currently holds two slam titles. Serena Williams holds two, as well. Clijsters holds zero... but she's ranked #1. Can there be any greater example of how fallible the WTA rankings are?
And I don't want to hear any nonsense about her "consistency," either. In the end, if a player is going to be a presence in the room when the "best player" title is debated, the argument won't settle around how many Tier II's she wins, but how many slams. Right now, Clijsters has exactly as many in her column as her little sister Elke.
So, for one final time this grand slam season, I'll say it: Chew your food, Kim. Chew your food. Just watch Justine. She'll teach you how to do it without "disrespecting" the game.
(Ah, that felt good. Now onto the person who actually deserves to talked about this week.)
**BUT, MORE IMPORTANTLY... JUSTINE **
As I said way back when (or so it seems), I'm suddenly taken by the mere existence of one Justine Henin-Hardenne. She's like a mummy come to life, a thought-extinct mammal found deep in the heart of... Belgium, of all places?
In the age of power in women's tennis, where big babes rule and Martina Hingis goes from dominant force to immediate afterthought, here's Justine. After thirteen days of fawning over the pounding play of the bubbly, personable, extroverted #1 who's never without a smile...there was Justine.
Yes, Justine Henin-Hardenne. A small woman, also from Belgium, who has taken her good time in coming out of her shell over the years. She of the more classic, varied game. She who hasn't sought the spotlight, but has managed this past summer to get under the skin of the #1 and #3-ranked players in the world with a wave and an injury timeout at a crucial moment... oh, and two important wins that her opponents weren't prepared for. Serena was brought to tears in Paris, while Clijsters charged her with faking an injury and disrepecting the game in San Diego. Showing an appreciated touch of orneriness, JHH called the Clijsters charge "stupid" and stated what many must know to at least be partly true -- that the time-worn circumstance of a past "underdog" suddenly getting the best of the "favorites" has suddenly spawned hints of resentment and jealousy.
JHH deserves her moment. She's put herself right in the middle of the fray for 2003's fight for #1 because of her complete offseason follow-through on a plan to get stronger, hoping to better offset her obvious physical disadvantages against the other top players. The plan has worked wonders. She now packs far more power behind her shots than one would expect from someone her size, and even her serve is an effective weapon that compliments her otherwise clever court tactics (and, of course, that pristine backhand).
Like Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne had her troubles in big matches last year. But, in January, ironically at the same Australian Open where Clijsters' SF collapse against Serena planted seeds of doubt that now won't go away, JHH sowed a garden of belief that exists eight months later.
The first signs that JHH's labors would pay dividends came when she developed leg cramps severe enough to send her to the ground in a prone position during a 4th Round match against Lindsay Davenport. She managed to perservere and win a 9-7 final set. Flashforward to the US Open SF, and JHH wins another 3-hour plus, 3-set, cramps-plagued marathon. Clearly, the reverberations of Oz are still being felt, as Henin-Hardenne likely wouldn't have believed she had the reserve of fortitude in New York without the experience of January having proved it to herself... just as Clijsters might not be hounded by her grand slam collapses had she avoided the Serena Choke a round later.
On the bright side, ranking sanity will likely win out. In the 4th quarter, Clijsters has to defend points from three titles (and one runner-up). Henin-Hardenne won just one singles title last Fall. With Serena maybe out until sometime in October, JHH's time to shine even brighter will soon arrive. The chances that she'll rise to #1 at some point between now and November look good (she currently trails Clijsters by just 330 points).
How things play out at the end of 2003 is an open question, but there can be no legitimate turn of fortune in Clijsters' favor until next January in Australia. That's her next TRUE proving ground. Success anywhere else will be a mirage. Maybe she'll reverse this year's Oz fate in four months time. Maybe not.
For now, though, Justine is the Queen and everyone else is her Court. Kim? For the moment, she's the court jester... happily entertaining the masses, but never leaving a lasting mark. It's a simple fact that what the computer says today is meaningless... we all saw the truth in New York.
*2003 U.S. OPEN MATCHES OF NOTE*
1.SF - JHH def. Capriati
....4-6/7-5/7-6. A classic. The match of the tournament and a sure-fire nominee for Match of the Year. Capriati served for the match at 5-3 in both the 2nd and 3rd sets, and was two points from victory on eleven different occasions. She was even up 4-1 in the 3rd, but the see-saw nature of the 3-hour, 30-minute match that lasted until 12:30am prevents me from calling this a "choke" on Capriati's part. JHH is 15-1 in 3-setters in 2003; while Capriati is 3-11.
2.Final - JHH def. Clijsters
....7-5/6-1. JHH should have been the one bordering on physical exhaustion after her cramp-filled SF match, but it was KC's mental fatigue that proved more daunting. Once Clijsters blew two sets points at 5-4 in the 1st, this result was a fait accompli.
3.4r - Schiavone def. Sugiyama
....over a 4-day match, Sugiyama served for the match in the 2nd set before the rains came. She was up 2-0 in the 3rd before rain came down again, but then lost the final 6 games once play resumed.
4.4r - JHH def. Dinara Safina
....Henin-Hardenne played a perfect match in gaining a 6-0,5-0 lead. So what if the final set ended up being 6-3 -- Justine's true heroics would come later.
5.Girls Final - Kirsten Flipkens def. Michaella Krajicek
Ruano-Pascual/Suarez def. Kuznetsova/Navratilova
...Martina didn't get another title, but she does now rise to #8 in the doubles rankings and she and Kuznetsova seem assured of a berth in the WTA Championship field.
"Killer Kim Slays Her Albatross" (September 10, 2005)
al*ba*tross \al-buh-tros\ n. 1: any of various large web-footed seabirds; 2a: something that causes persistent deep concern or anxiety; 2b: something that greatly hinders accomplishment; 3: the avian creature former #1 Kim Clijsters has been allowing to live on her shoulder for the past four years.
Bloods and guts were sloppily spilled on the freshly painted court of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday night... and for once they didn't belong to Kim Clijsters. They didn't belong to Mary Pierce, either, though you'd have a hard time proving it after the Canadian-born, America-residing, French-representing 30-year old put forth her second feeble effort in a grand slam final in a matter of three short months. No, the carcass that was flopping on the ground a little before 10pm New York time was that of the albatross that's been Clijsters' constant companion ever since she failed to put away Jennifer Capriati in the Roland Garros final's 12-10 final set back in 2001. It took over four years, but on her fifth try "Nice Kim" transformed enough into "Killer Kim" to finally sew up the gaping hole in her career resume. The U.S. Open title is her's... and she has avian blood on her racquet to prove it.
"Albie" is dead. Long live "Albie."
Now we'll finally get to see what would have happened had Clijsters been able to fight off Capriati in Paris all those years ago, as she'll no longer be encumbered by undelivered-upon expectations. Her tennis legacy, aside from squeegeeing courts and running through puddles during recent rain delays, had threatened to become cemented by her inability to win "the big one." If her personality hadn't led so many to kiss her butt for so long, ignoring that major flaw in a one-time world #1, it would have come to define her long ago. If she hadn't walked away with her first slam title at this year's Flushing Meadows event, though, even her most ardent supporters in the big-time media would have finally gotten to a point where even they could no longer avoid the obvious.
So credit Clijsters for a great last minute save, not to mention a hell of a North American hardcourt season. Four titles. A 22-1 WTA record, the last sixteen wins all in a row. A 2-0 Fed Cup record. A U.S. Open crown... and the slaying of a wing-ed creature.
Sigh... "Albie" was such a nice bird, too. Thankfully, the powers-that-be managed to FedEx one of his little chicks over to Amelie Maursesmo's address. He might be able to find a nice, comfy -- and possibly permanent -- home over there.
As for Kim, Backspin admits to being at least a little disappointed at the U.S. Open's final result. Nothing against her, but sometimes it's more fun to take a contrarian viewpoint, such as rooting against the so-called "good girl" to win out in the end. Sigh... but the Open ended up giving us a slightly cliched Hollywood ending with the "heroine" triumphing in the final act. Oh, well... on to the next easy target, I guess.
Now, the big question regarding Clijsters changes from being about whether she'll ever win a slam to whether or not "Killer Kim" will soon become a "serial offender."
*2005 U.S. OPEN FINAL - NOTES*
#4 Kim Clijsters def. #12 Mary Pierce
...6-3/6-1. This time, Pierce was the squeegee. After getting whipped by Henin-Hardenne in just 1:02 in the Roland Garros final, Pierce "pushed" Clijsters to 1:05 here. In fact, the toughest, most precarious, moment for "Killer Kim" on Saturday night came during her climb up and across the Ashe Stadium railings en route to the Friends Box. For a moment there, I had visions of a very strange headline on Sunday... something like, "Clijsters Wins Open, Breaks Leg in Fall During Celebration."
#1...JUSTINE HENIN, May 2008
#3...Steffi Graf, August 1999
#4...KIM CLIJSTERS, May 2007 @
@- returned in July 2009
*HENIN'S BEST U.S. OPEN RESULTS*
W = 2003, 2007
RU = 2006
4th = 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005
*CLIJSTERS' BEST U.S. OPEN RESULTS*
W = 2005
RU = 2003
QF = 2001
4th = 2002
*ALL-TIME WEEKS AT SINGLES #1*
72...Serena Williams @
39...Amelie Mauresmo @
20...Dinara Safina @ (weeks as of Aug.31, 2009)
19...KIM CLIJSTERS @
18...Jelena Jankovic @
17...Maria Sharapova @
12...Ana Ivanovic @
11...Venus Williams @
As quickly and surprisingly as they'd arrived, the Belgians were gone.
By mid-2008, both Clijsters and Henin had retired from tennis. The unlikely careers of the sport's leading Waffles were over... or at least that appeared to be the case.
Clijsters never won another slam title after the '05 Open, then retired in May 2007 (while ranked #4 in the world), married and became a mother. In fact, she's yet to play a U.S. Open match since she won the title, having also missed out of her '06 tournament defense attempt due to a wrist injury.
Henin rose to #1 for the first time in October '03, replacing Clijsters just two months after SHE'D become the first Belgian to hold the spot, and soon became the dominant figure in the women's game during the mid-to-early-late 2000's, claiming six more slam crowns (including three consecutive Roland Garros titles from 2005-07) while persevering through illness, divorce, the Williams Sisters and continual backbiting over her Clijsters-dwarfing desire to win that often plopped a proverbial villainess' black hat on her head (even as she ironically always donned a white one). Late in '07, Henin reunited with her estranged family and seemed to lose the steely inner drive that took her to the top of the sport. Having lost her edge, she abruptly announded her retirement in May '08 while still ranked #1 in the world (making her the only player to ever bow out on top).
Henin's exit into the good night wrapped up the short-lived "Belgian Era" of WTA history... well, until it didn't.
The story of Clijsters (and maybe Henin, too?) isn't over. Following a two-year break, after training to participate in the exhibition extravaganza associated with the christening of Wimbledon's new Centre Court roof, Clijsters decided to make a comeback. She returned to the WTA tour earlier this summer, and promptly ran off a string of wins over Top 20 and Top 10 players. She'll make her long-awaited return to the U.S. Open next week. Meanwhile, recent rumors are hinting that Henin, also in training to take part in a series of exhibition matches later this year, is contemplating a possible comeback of her own in 2010.
It was a truly sad day at Backspin HQ when Henin walked away last year (needless to say, I'd taken Clijsters' pre-announced, then earlier-than-promised, goodbye more in stride). When Clijsters recently returned, though, I found that I'd missed her presence more than I'd realized (worthy "antagonists" tend to garner their own wealth of respect over time, too, I suppose). I vowed to wipe the slate clean and start anew, letting go of my past skepticism about the "nicer than a box of sunshine" (sorry, old habits die hard) Belgian. So far, so good.
Of course, as I've come to sense that the more success that occurs in Clijsters II the more likely it could be that an Henin II might become a reality, I've discovered a whole new reason to bring myself to root for the player who for so long was Backspin's less-favored Waffle. The "uneasy truce" isn't nearly as uneasy as I secretly may have expected (wanted?) it to be. Go figure... or maybe not.
The U.S. Open is the only slam that both Clijsters and Henin managed to win (so far, at least). But might another history-making, two-headed chapter in WTA history be about to be written over the next few seasons? Maybe even another slam-winning one, or even two? From here, it doesn't seem to be that far-fetched a scenario.
Nor would it be an unwelcome one. Surely, the second time around would be just as sweet.
All for now.
PREVIOUS TIME CAPSULES: 1987 Roland Garros (Graf), 1989 Roland Garros (Sanchez/Chang), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors), 1993 Australian Open (Seles & Courier), 1993 Wimbledon (Graf/Novotna)