Clijsters, Henin and a 25th show-stopper showdown
There are few fans of tennis who, this time last year, would have predicted the match that Wimbledon will serve up on the opening day of week two.
It will almost certainly be scheduled for Centre Court and will almost certainly thrill spectators around the world.
For this match will bring together two multiple Grand Slam champions who, a year ago, were retired from tennis: Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.
It is just 10 months since Clijsters returned to the Tour having walked away during a successful 2007 season as world No.4. A couple of months later she was married, and within a year she had a daughter.
Then, still only 26, she delighted a Wimbledon crowd last May by taking to the Centre Court opposite Steffi Graf to celebrate the completion of its new roof.
It was clear from her appearance and her game that she was in very fine fettle and, sure enough, she made her professional comeback on the hard courts of north America a couple of months later.
The rest, as they say, is history.
She won the third tournament she played, the US Open. After a gap of three months, she won Brisbane. Three tournaments later it was Miami and now, despite missing most of the clay season with a foot injury, she’s hitting the grass as though she’s never been away.
And her grass record is none too shabby -she reached the semis at Wimbledon in 2003 and 2006, which was the last time she played on grass.
Fellow Belgian Henin also chose to retire at the height of her powers -as world No.1 -in May 2008. She has talked of mental exhaustion, a loss of appetite for the game, and a need to reconcile personal issues.
Then, last year, she saw Roger Federer win his first French Open, and felt she had unfinished business of her own.
She had, in her illustrious career of seven Slams, failed to win Wimbledon, though she had come as close to it as Federer had to the French title: finals in 2001 and 2006, and semis in 2002, 2003 and 2007.
She reached the finals of the first two tournaments she played this January: Brisbane and the Australian Open. She then won on the clay of Stuttgart. More significantly, just a fortnight ago, she won the title in ‘s-Hertogenbosch -her first on grass in almost three years.
So the return of the contrasting talents of the Belgian duo has been a shot in the arm for the women’s Tour, for they both play attacking, varied and all-court tennis with very different physiques and playing styles.
The flaxen-haired, light-skinned Clijsters has a powerful double-fisted backhand and a strong, deep, top-spin forehand, mixed up with wickedly angled cross-court drives, safe overheads, and increasingly frequent and quick ventures to the net.
The wiry, petite Henin generates power with perfect timing and technique. Her crisp forehand is sharp and penetrating. Her backhand, surely the most beautiful in tennis, wielded with her single right arm, zips huge drives to the baseline while her sliced cross-court sweep, so often used by other players in defence, is used by Henin for pure attack.
And so to this fourth-round match-up, their 25th encounter.
If statistics can crank up the stakes any further, it is worth noting that they currently stand at 12 matches apiece. And while Clijsters may have won both of their matches this year, each contest went the full distance.
In fact, the Miami semi-final went to a tie-break in two of the three sets when no-one else in the tournament came close to taking a set off Clijsters -even Venus Williams.
So far, at Wimbledon, neither has lost a set and Henin, in particular, looked outstanding in her defeat of the No.12 seed, the powerful and in-form Nadia Petrova. Henin will also, no doubt, remember that she got the better of Clijsters on their only previous meeting in SW19 in 2006.
All this, combined with Henin’s grass prowess, suggests that the Wimbledon title must be tantalisingly close. But if she gains the upper-hand against her all-time rival, she will still have to face Venus Williams, who has won both their previous Wimbledon matches, and then Serena Williams.
It is a tall order, but if Henin does win, the scene will surely echo the emotional triumph that inspired her to come back and try -Federer at Roland Garros.