She started coughing and finally, after several attempts at talking, gave up. None of the reporters assembled around the table had any throat lozenges, so Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium had to take a moment to get some water and clear her throat.
And that was before there were any questions about her countrywoman, Kim Clijsters, and what has become a Shaq/Kobe-like controversy in Belgium.
There has been no argument about whose country it is, although that would not be likely in a nation already linguistically divided.
Instead, the last time Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters were here in Southern California, during the summer, the heated debate had to do with Henin-Hardenne taking an injury timeout because of blisters at Carlsbad in their final, and Clijsters questioning the severity of the injury after losing in three sets.
Then, after Henin-Hardenne had won the U.S. Open, there was another flap, about her physical development.
Tuesday, on the eve of the season-ending $3-million Bank of America WTA Tour Championships, which start tonight at Staples Center, it became clear that their differences had not vanished. Respect, yes.
Henin-Hardenne, the French Open and U.S. Open champion, had a concise answer to that. "No," she said, before coughing again.
Their closeness was always exaggerated, anyway, perhaps making it easier for them to get along in close quarters, whether in small Belgium or on the high-schoolish tour, which operates like a small village.
Henin-Hardenne, 21, is a year older than Clijsters and her first language is French. Clijsters is from the Flemish-speaking region.
"Have we ever been really, really close friends?" Henin-Hardenne said. "That's the question. There's a lot of respect between each other.
"We traveled a lot together when we were young and we're doing the same job. We come from a little country. It's not easy every day. Respect is the most important thing, and there is a lot of respect between each other."
Clijsters on Tuesday said: "Everything has been blown out of proportion, but I don't want to start it again. I don't want to say too much about it, otherwise it would flare up again."
Many said that Clijsters' father and manager, Leo, touched off the controversy in Flemish newspapers after the U.S. Open. He, Filip Dewulf, another former top Belgian player, and Wim Vandeven, the trainer of female tour player Els Callens, all were quoted in news reports in Belgium talking about Henin-Hardenne's impressive and rapid physical development.
So when Henin-Hardenne stepped off the plane in Brussels, buoyant after winning the U.S. Open, her second Grand Slam victory of 2003, her mood was punctured when she found herself having to deny using performance-enhancing drugs.
Leo Clijsters then blamed the media and denied having made any pejorative link. Dewulf sent a letter of apology to a leading Belgian newspaper.
But Henin-Hardenne said Tuesday she had not received a personal apology from any of the three who were quoted. And as the Paris-based International Herald Tribune said, the insinuation had been made: "In postmodern sports, any comment that links rapid strength gain to rapidly improved results is code."
"It wasn't easy," Henin-Hardenne said of facing the post-Open questions. "When you know you work so hard, you always give everything for this and you win two Grand Slams in the same year, you make people jealous, for sure. That's normal, I understand it. But you don't have to make it public. If these persons have any problem with me, they can come to me and talk to me.
" ... After the U.S. Open, you see in these moments who are the good persons around you."
Henin-Hardenne said she learned her own lesson about questioning the severity of Lindsay Davenport's injury and the timing of her treatment during a match last year in Zurich.
"I had many, many regrets after that because you never know what happens," she said. "It was a good lesson for me and I hope it's going to be a good lesson for all those people who [talked] about me in the last few weeks."
Simply talking about herself and a superb on-court record in 2003 was no easy task Tuesday. Henin-Hardenne has had a fever and chest congestion since she arrived in Los Angeles.
Though she canceled practice Monday and started taking antibiotics, Henin-Hardenne said she was not feeling much better as she tries to retake the top spot.
On the line is the year-end No. 1 ranking, a slot up for grabs since injuries prevented Serena and Venus Williams from playing the second half of the season.
Clijsters is the defending champion here and leads Henin-Hardenne by 135 points but can't improve her position. Tour officials said Tuesday that if Henin-Hardenne merely reached the semifinals, she would finish 2003 with the No. 1 ranking.