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A Blistering Lesson for Compatriots

Henin-Hardenne wins final over fellow Belgian Clijsters, who seems upset by injury break.

August 04, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

CARLSBAD — In the Battle of Belgium at the Acura Classic Sunday, Justine Henin-Hardenne took the advantage. That added up to a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory in the final over Kim Clijsters, as well as a nice psychological edge over her compatriot as the women's tennis tour marches toward the U.S. Open.

At the end of the 1-hour 49-minute struggle, No. 3-seeded Henin-Hardenne was fresh as a daisy and No. 2 Clijsters was too-pooped-to-participate.

Henin-Hardenne said, "I could have played one or two more sets at the end."

Clijsters said, "I started off really well and then just ran out of gas in the second and the third. I wasn't the freshest [in the third set] and my mind wasn't clear to go all the way."

There appear to be schedule lessons here.

When Clijsters finished her post-match ceremony and media interviews, she headed back out to play the doubles final. (She teamed with Ai Sugiyama to beat Lindsay Davenport and Lisa Raymond, 6-4, 7-5.) Henin-Hardenne, who almost never plays doubles, headed to the showers and a dinner with her husband.

Clijsters said she will "take some rest for a few days" and then play in the women's event at Carson. Henin-Hardenne said she will stay in the San Diego area for a few days and then travel leisurely to Toronto to play there in a tournament that begins the week after Carson.

It is Clijsters, No. 2 in the world now, who is likely to become No. 1 in the next few weeks because of Serena Williams' injury and surgery. But it is Henin-Hardenne who is winning the measure of the minds. This is the third final, including the French Open, in which she has defeated Clijsters this year, and Sunday's loss marked the first time Henin-Hardenne had beaten Clijsters on hard courts, the surface of the U.S. Open. Henin-Hardenne is only one notch below Clijsters in the rankings and she said Sunday that although she prefers to look at matches one at a time, she realizes that if she wins enough of those, she, too, has a shot at the top spot.

Clijsters, whose toughest match in the tournament had been her 6-3, 6-3 run past Davenport in the semifinals, came out firing and turned her 4-0 lead into a 32-minute first set. But things turned quickly and some pointed to the reason for that as:

The Big Blister Controversy.

Clijsters likes to play fast, to feed off momentum. And momentum was clearly on her side as she finished the first set with a cross-court forehand that chased Henin-Hardenne into the corner to swing at air. But when they sat down for the break, Henin-Hardenne called for the trainer. She had blisters on her feet and asked for a new bandage.

That took five minutes, and by all indications, Clijsters sat and stewed. "I'm getting used to that," Clijsters said. "She's done that for every match we've played. It is getting kind of annoying, if it is really for an injury."

When asked if she felt that call for the trainer was a ploy or a real injury need, she said: "It didn't look like it was hurting. She was still running."

Henin-Hardenne, when asked for her side, said she would have called for the trainer even if she had won the first set, and added, "She can think whatever she wants."

So much for warm-and-fuzzy friendship from the Belgian tennis world.

Henin-Hardenne, fresh bandage in place, started the second set the way Clijsters had started the first. She ran off to a 4-0 lead and held at 6-2. That meant that the fans here, a sellout crowd of 6,500 on a hot and sunny day at the La Costa Resort and Spa, would finally get a three-set match for the first time since Thursday's third round.

They battled on serve for the first seven games, but Clijsters was clearly the lesser player. She faced four break points in her first three service games, to none for Henin-Hardenne, and fought off three more while serving at 3-4 before finally netting a forehand that all but ended the match. At 5-3, Henin-Hardenne served it out at love, taking the match point with a drop shot that was kind of a symbolic thumbing of her nose. All day long, Clijsters had thrilled the crowd by running down one drop shot after another.

This time, Henin-Hardenne patted it at such an angle that Clijsters, finally, had no chance.

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