Paris: Justine Henin-Hardenne will not only be fighting for her slice of history when she takes the Philippe Chatrier Centre Court on Saturday against fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters in the French Open women’s singles final.
Both 21-year-old Henin-Hardenne, who comes from the French-speaking Walloon region, and Clijsters, from the majority Dutch-speaking Flanders region, will be bidding to become the first Belgian Grand Slam champion.
It is the second Grand Slam final for both, with Clijsters reaching the 2001 French Open final and Henin-Hardenne runner-up in Wimbledon the same year.
But as she eliminated world No.1 Serena Williams on Thursday, Henin-Hardenne must have remembered the heartache of her first Grand Slam defeat to the powerful American’s elder sister Venus two years ago just hours after her grandfather died from a massive heart attack.
That tragedy happened only a few months after Henin-Hardenne, whose mother died of cancer when she was 12, also lost a three-month-old nephew to cot death syndrome.
Henin-Hardenne was taken straight back to Belgium by Crown Prince Philippe and his wife, Princess Mathilde, who had watched the match from the Royal Box. This time round as well Belgium’s royal family will be watching the first all-Belgian Grand Slam tennis final.
King Albert II and wife Paola will be accompanied to Paris by Crown Prince Philippe and six other royals to watch Clijsters play Henin-Hardenne, the Belgian royal palace said on Friday.
“The King and the Queen absolutely did not want to miss this,” a spokesman for the palace said.
This time out the Belgian, who married sweetheart Pierre-Yves Hardenne last November and was the 1997 French Open junior champion, wants to fulfil her vow to her mother when she attended Roland Garros as a child, that one day she too would be holding the trophy.
“I used to say ‘mum, one day that will be me’,” recalls the player, who standing 5ft 5in and weighing 57kg has proved that she is more than a match for her larger opponents.
“I’ll fight every point for sure to try and win my first Grand Slam title,” said Henin-Hardenne, who believes that clay is her best chance of a Grand Slam win.
“Power is not the same as that on a hard court. So I believe maybe a little bit more in my chances on a clay court for sure.”
Her record this season bodes well for the fourth-seeded Henin-Hardenne, winning three of her nine titles, and becoming only the fourth woman in history to win the clay court titles in Charleston and Berlin successively.
“I’m feeling much stronger than last year — physically and mentally. I’m feeling confident,” said Henin-Hardenne, who has won three of her last four meetings on clay against world number two Clijsters, including the Berlin final.
“Kim is a great player. It’s going to be difficult to win this match tomorrow. We just have to think that I’m in the final. That’s what’s the most important for me.
“It’s going to be a very special day for everyone in Belgium and for us too.”
Clijsters, daughter of former Belgium soccer international Leo, was relishing the opportunity of meeting compatriot Henin-Hardenne in the final, and giving herself an early present for her 20th birthday Sunday.
She too has been rapidly improving, also winning three of her 13 WTA titles this year including recently on clay in Rome.
And their friendship will not stand in the way of their determination to win.
The last time the pair met here in 2001 Clijsters recovered from a 2-6, 2-4 deficit to beat Henin (as she was then) in the semi-final before falling to Jennifer Capriati going 12-10 in the longest final set at a French Open final. “It’s always a little bit different I think because we know each other so well and we grew up together,” said Clijsters.
“If I play her, you just try to go into that match, try not to worry about who you’re playing, just try to focus on yourself and make sure you get the best out of yourself,” said Clijsters.
“Justine looks like she’s playing some unbelievable tennis. It’s incredible to be in the final here, so close to home as well. It’s a real Belgian Slam.”