Friends and compatriots play again in Grand Slam final

Friday, January 30th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ They played kids' tennis together in Belgium, shared hotel rooms as teenagers and respect each other on and off the court.

On Saturday, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters will meet in a Grand Slam final for the third time in eight months. Clijsters, who lost to No. 1 Henin-Hardenne in the French Open and U.S. Open, will be hoping it's third time lucky.

They both advanced with relatively easy straight-sets semifinal wins at the Australian Open. Henin-Hardenne defeated Fabiola Zuluaga of Colombia 6-2, 6-2 while Clijsters, still bothered by a bruised left ankle, beat Patty Schnyder of Switzerland 6-2, 7-6 (2).

It will mark the ninth time since the WTA's computer rankings were introduced in 1975 that the reigning No. 1 is defending her ranking against the second-placed player. It is also the sixth Grand Slam final where the No. 1 spot is at stake.

``It's going to be another great moment in my career,'' said Henin-Hardenne. ``And people are going to make a lot of noise, again _ it's an all-Belgian final, which I understand is huge for a little country. But I think that both Kim and me are getting familiar and used to this situation.''

This time, it might be a little different.

Clijsters is engaged to Australian Lleyton Hewitt. On Thursday, Hewitt and his parents were in the players' box, cheering Clijsters on every point, and the Rod Laver Arena crowd was pro-Clijsters.

``I've come to so many Davis Cup matches here, and now to be on court, and have the support of the crowd, it's very special,'' Clijsters said. ``I've made the final at the French and U.S. Open, but coming here means a lot more to me.''

Television commentator John McEnroe, interviewing Clijsters in front of the crowd after her match, joked with her that there ``must be something'' Clijsters doesn't like about her finals opponent.

``The way she chases down balls,'' laughed Clijsters, before turning more serious.

``I've got so much respect for her, I admire her very much, on and off the court,'' said Clijsters. ``We played under-10s, have grown up together, shared hotels rooms.

``It's incredible how small Belgium is and to have two players like us to come through at such a young age. We both work really hard and deserve to be here.''

Clijsters is from Bilzen in the northern part of Belgium near the Dutch border and speaks Flemish and English. Henin-Hardenne is from Liege in the south and French is her first language.

Clijsters, 20, has a two-handed backhand, Henin-Hardenne, 21, uses just one hand. Both count Steffi Graf as their most admired player; Clijsters likes Destinys Child and Bon Jovi; Henin-Hardenne prefers Celine Dion.

If they didn't already know each other before they turned professional, they would now.

They have played each other 17 times professionally, including eight times in 2003, with Clijsters holding a 9-8 edge. But the two that mattered most last year were at Roland Garros, where Clijsters lost 6-0, 6-4, and in New York, where Henin-Hardenne won 7-5, 6-1.

Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and will play the mixed doubles final here Sunday with Leander Paes of India, said the Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters matchup has the potential to develop into a classic rivalry.

``But for that to happen, Kim needs to win a few finals,'' Navratilova said Friday. ``Justine has had the upper hand. But they are two fantastic players, and the fact they are both from Belgium is a footnote.''

On Saturday, Clijsters will hope her tender left ankle, first injured three weeks ago at the Hopman Cup, can hold up for one more match, giving her a decent shot at her first Grand Slam title.

She doesn't think Henin-Hardenne holds a psychological edge over her.

``I know what the problem was, and it wasn't mental,'' said Clijsters, who can take over the No. 1 ranking if she beats Henin-Hardenne. ``I hope I have learned from those losses, so maybe third time lucky.''