Tennis: Belgians’ return bolsters competition Down Under
By JOHN PYE
AP Sports Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia — In her Grand Slam comeback, Kim Clijsters upset Serena Williams en route to claiming the U.S. Open title.
Williams was really, really upset in that semifinal last September and it cost her the match and a record fine.
Four months later, the return of another Belgian from a premature retirement has bolstered the field at the Australian Open and created a compelling women’s draw in the year’s first Grand Slam tournament.
Justine Henin, who has won seven Grand Slam singles titles and quit in May 2008 while holding the No. 1 ranking, is only one tournament into her comeback, but is hoping to emulate Clijsters’ successful return to the majors.
Again, Williams is the defending champion.
While the men’s champion at Melbourne Park is widely expected to come from the group of top five players led by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — who’ve won the last three Australian titles — the list of women’s contenders is growing.
Clijsters, a former world No. 1 who married U.S. basketball player Brian Lynch and gave birth to daughter Jada during two years away from tennis, has quickly regained her form. She has won two titles in five tournaments, including the upset of Williams.
Upset being an understatement.
It was a profanity-laced, finger-pointing tantrum directed at a line judge in a semifinal loss to Clijsters at the U.S. Open that cost Williams a record fine of $82,500. She also faces suspension from the U.S. Open if she has any serious outbursts at a major in the next two years.
Williams, winner of 11 Grand Slam singles titles, doesn’t want to talk about that anymore, saying after her arrival in Australia that she’d discussed the outburst enough. After almost two months off, it was time to focus on tennis.
“No matter what, I have to be at my best, because whenever I play these young ... ladies,” Williams said, “they’re always at their best.”
Besides Clijsters and Henin — a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion who retired in May 2008 while holding the No. 1 ranking — Williams also has Maria Sharapova to contend with this year.
Sharapova won the 2008 Australian Open, but was unable to defend her title last year after right shoulder surgery kept her off the tour for almost 10 months.
Then there’s the other Russians: second-seeded Dinara Safina, a three-time Grand Slam finalist who his returning from a back injury; third-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, the reigning French Open champion; and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva.
Despite all the challengers aiming for her title, Williams considers her sister Venus, seeded sixth, her main competition. Serena is 13-10 against her older sibling in WTA Tour matches, including victories last year in the finals at Wimbledon and the season-ending tour championship.
When Serena Williams takes the court, however, the world’s No. 1 player believes she’s really only competing against herself.
“You know, I don’t care who I play. Whenever I play someone they play their best,” she said this week en route to the Sydney International final. “So whoever I play, believe me, they’re going to play like No. 1 on that particular day against me for whatever reason.”
Henin won the Australian title in 2004. She retired with an abdominal strain in the 2006 final, skipped the 2007 edition and then lost to Sharapova in the 2008 quarterfinals — her last major.
Serena Williams, who has won three of the seven majors since then, missed a chance to play Henin this week. The 27-year-old Belgian withdrew from the Sydney International with a thigh strain after losing the Brisbane final to Clijsters in her comeback tournament.
Williams said the time off the tour actually might have helped Henin.
“She’s been gone for just a little over a year, so you don’t lose that much form,” Williams said. “I know she quit while she was ahead, but she’s decided to come back. I think that’s a great thing for women’s tennis.
“I don’t think anyone is surprised anymore with what Kim was able to do. And Justine, she’s had enough time to recover and have a break and come back. It hasn’t been too long.”
The Belgians’ return has raised expectations for the women at Melbourne Park.
“This is going to be one of the greatest events for women’s tennis,” Sharapova said. “The comebacks are great story lines. ... As far as rivalries, I’m sure we can create some this year.”
The rivalries in the men’s draw are already established.
Federer finished his last match in Melbourne Park in tears after a five-set final loss to Nadal cost him a chance of equaling Pete Sampras’ record of 14 career Grand Slam singles titles.
In the wake of that defeat, he married longtime girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec and won his first French Open title to equal Sampras’ mark and complete a career Grand Slam of all four majors. He went on to add to the Grand Slam record and regain the No. 1 ranking by outlasting Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final 16-14 in the fifth set. Three weeks later he became the father of twin daughters.
But just on the cusp of a third consecutive major, he was upset in the U.S. Open final by 6-foot-6 Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, ending the Swiss player’s run at five straight titles in New York.
The win was a boost for del Potro, who displaced Andy Murray at No. 4 last week to ensure he’ll avoid the top three players at least until the semifinals at Melbourne Park.
Federer didn’t count it as a real setback, either.
“Last year, I had a problem at the start of the season with my back,” he said. “But I feel fine now because I have been practicing enough to feel confident of winning.”
In 2009, Federer lost to Murray in Doha, Nadal in Melbourne and to Djokovic at Miami in March.
Then as Nadal struggled with injury, Federer found his rhythm.
“I got better and better as the season went on,” Federer said. “I was able to bounce back and was on a roll. I can do it again. That’s a good feeling to have.”
Murray lost rankings points by not defending his Doha title this year, but said he felt more confident than ever of ending his major drought after winning three singles matches for Britain at the Hopman Cup. Right after that, he lost to Spaniard Tommy Robredo in the final of the international mixed-teams event.
Federer complained of a sore right shoulder when he lost the Doha semifinals earlier this month to Nikolay Davydenko. But he has played down any injury concerns since arriving in Melbourne. Del Potro, meanwhile, withdrew from an exhibition tournament at Kooyong with a sore right wrist, casting doubt on his Open ambitions.
Henin has been on the mend, practicing this week in Melbourne to give her sore left leg a work out.
After the Brisbane final, she said she was exhausted, but encouraged by her efforts. She’d rallied from a set and a break down, then wasted two match points in a dramatic, seesawing encounter that Clijsters won 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (6).
“I’m so proud of what we did on the court,” Henin said. “I didn’t play a tournament in 18 months and I’ve been able to compete with really one of the best players in the world.
“It was a drama from the beginning to the end.”
Clijsters agreed the Belgian pair “set the bar pretty high for ourselves for the rest of the year.”
The Australian Open will be a good test of whether they are up to the challenge.