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Belgians to Play for Title

Clijsters knocks off Davenport and will face countrywoman Henin-Hardenne in a rematch of French Open finalists.

August 03, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

CARLSBAD — A couple of Belgians waffled the field in the Acura Classic and will play for a lot of dough here today.

Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters came, saw and conquered the San Diego stop on the women's tour, making their way to today's final with routine semifinal victories Saturday.

Henin-Hardenne, who says that she and Clijsters are "close friends," and got to know each other by "traveling together as juniors for about 12 years," completed the big day for her country's tennis fans in the evening session by beating 18-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia.

Kuznetsova is a fast-rising newcomer who had the good fortune to be in Jennifer Capriati's part of the draw in an event in which she was forced to withdraw with a shoulder injury. The score was 6-1, 6-3 and it was more of tennis lesson than a tennis match. Kuznetsova hits hard and deep, but she picked the wrong backboard to try that in this match.

In the afternoon session, in a match expected to introduce some close competition and drama to a tournament that, so far, has had very little, Clijsters wrecked that theory by beating Lindsay Davenport, 6-3, 6-3.

The emergence of the Belgian pair is a compelling story.

Henin-Hardenne defeated Clijsters in the French Open final in May for her first Grand Slam event final. But Clijsters , who has never won a major title although she has been to the French final twice, has won eight of their 14 matches. And it is Clijsters who is likely to take over the No. 1 spot in the rankings, perhaps as early as next week at Carson with the injury and surgery to Serena Williams. Henin-Hardenne, currently No. 3, has never beaten Clijsters on hard courts, the surface here at the La Costa Resort and Spa.

Clijsters won the title at Stanford last week and now, with the pair in the final here of a tournament that has increased its stature with its first $1-million purse, they have put themselves on a lofty level.

Think of it as the Belgian Plateau, resting a few hundred feet below the summit of Everest, where Venus and Serena Williams reside.

The winner today will earn $148,000 and the loser $77,000, meaning that, any way you look at it, the economy of Belgium will be almost a quarter of a million dollars better when its markets open Monday.

The final could be a good one. Frankly, the paying customers deserve it. They have been given only one three-set match since the quarterfinals, and in that one, Henin-Hardenne battled back against Elena Dementieva to get into the third set and then blasted through a 6-1 laugher to finish it.

Both Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne, seeded second and third, respectively, are fast, accurate and creative from the baseline. They are both stubborn and hate to lose.

Clijsters is a bit stronger and may hit and serve a bit harder. But Henin-Hardenne finished her match with Kuznetsova with a 110-mph ace.

And both are not above working the pre-match psyche job on each other.

Henin-Hardenne said, "I am ready to play the big fight. She will come into the match as the favorite, because she is almost No. 1 now. That means I have nothing to lose."

Clijsters said, "Justine is playing the best of the moment. She is so hard to play because she keeps bringing the ball back. Against others, I can hit a good shot and get the point. Against Justine, I am only halfway there. I have to play even better winners."

Clijsters has taken on the distinction of becoming perhaps the best defensive player on the tour. That means that only perfectly placed rockets get past her, a topic Davenport and Henin-Hardenne discussed.

One of her main weapons in this is an ability to stop on a dime and do incredible splits before changing direction. Do not try this on your home courts without expecting hospitalization.

*

The first $1-million purse for this event made it the richest second-tier women's tennis event. But that sort of money spoke loudly to the WTA tour, which boosted it to Tier I status for 2004.... For years, the San Diego tournament preceded another women's tournament in the Los Angeles area, the Manhattan Beach event that has now moved to Carson. But next year, the tables turn and Carson goes first, playing the week of July 19, followed the next week by the Acura.... A charity event here this week in memory of breast cancer victim Janis Fitch and for the benefit of the Scripps Polster Breast Care Center raised $257,192.... Another example of the wacky of world of sports television: Fox Sports Net did the telecast of the semifinals Saturday, but today's 1 p.m. final will be shown by ABC.

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