Thursday, January 29, 2004 Updated: January 30, 5:37 PM ET
All signs point to an Henin-Hardenne win
By Pam Shriver Special to ESPN.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Probably the biggest mystery of the women's semifinals was whether Kim Clijsters' left foot would allow her to play. The matchups overwhelmingly favored the Belgians, if they were healthy and playing their normal high-caliber game.
After Clijsters discovered that her foot injury is a nuisance but wouldn't keep her from competing, it was important for her to get through her semifinal in straight sets. She managed that by winning the second set tiebreak for the 6-2, 7-6 (2) victory over Patty Schnyder. She didn't get a day off between the quarters and semis, so getting off the court quickly was a high priority.
As far as Justine Henin-Hardenne, despite the score of her match with Fabiola Zuluaga being only 6-2, 6-2, the tennis was high standard, which hasn't always been the case this fortnight. Henin-Hardenne didn't play perfect, but she really didn't struggle, either.
So out of the past four majors, both Belgians will appear in the finals for a third time (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET, Fri.). So far, Henin-Hardenne has prevailed in each meeting.
The big question is why has Clijsters stumbled at this last hurdle to winning a major. At times, she looks like the better player, but she just lacks that belief. She probably won't gain it until she's able to make that first breakthrough to hold the trophy. That's what happened to Henin-Hardenne when she won her first major at the French Open last year.
You have to be able to see yourself winning the last point. You can't be afraid of it. At times last year, Clijsters looked fearful in that moment, while Henin-Hardenne looked desperate to grasp it.
This time, Henin-Hardenne is the healthier of the two (at the end of two weeks everyone has some small injuries or problem areas taped). Henin-Hardenne looks as strong as she did throughout last year. That gives her the edge over a nicked-up Clijsters.
One thing that does go against Henin-Hardenne is the crowd. They like Clijsters in Australia. As Aussie Lleyton Hewitt's fiance, she's almost considered another Aussie. Plus, she's the underdog. And the Australians simply have had the chance to get to know Clijsters as she's spent her offseasons Down Under the past few years. In interviews, she comes across as sunshiny and fun. It's easy to like her even from a distance.
That doesn't matter to Henin-Hardenne. She's as tough as anyone in tennis.
There are some things to watch for as they take the court. Henin-Hardenne's second serve is as big a weapon as you'll see in tennis. Serena also has a good second serve, but that list isn't very long. Henin-Hardenne hits a second serve in the 90-mph range that can force errors on her opponent's part.
Meanwhile, Henin-Hardenne's forehand has improved, earning her more winners, while her backhand is one of the best shots in women's tennis. Plus, she's coming to net with more confidence.
Clijsters doesn't have the same repertoire. Watch to see if her forehand deserts her. If it becomes a baseline battle and Clijsters' forehand holds up, she could dominate. But if her forehand doesn't hold up, with her foot problems and confidence issues, it points to Henin-Hardenne winning the third all-Belgian final.
ESPN tennis analyst Pam Shriver won 21 singles and 112 doubles crowns, including 22 Grand Slam titles.