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Compatriots keep battling

The new Australian Open women's champion had been crowned an hour before, and it was easy to see where Justine Henin-Hardenne was heading: down the corridor deep inside Rod Laver Arena, clasping the hand of her husband, Pierre-Yves, in the direction of the now customary postmatch, precelebration photo shoot.

It was much harder to know where fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters goes from here. Clijsters was the first from their country to reach a Grand Slam singles final, the first to win the ATP Tour's lucrative year-end championship, the first to reach No. 1 in singles and the first to do it in doubles. But she has yet to win the tournaments that matter most, coming closest the first time against Jennifer Capriati in the 2001 French Open final, which she lost 12-10 in the third set.

Clijsters beat Henin-Hardenne in a semifinal of that event, or perhaps it is more accurate to say Henin-Hardenne beat herself, surrendering a 6-1, 4-2 lead and speaking openly afterward of her inability to control her nerves. The nerves are still there, and Henin-Hardenne still speaks openly about them, but she no longer seems to beat herself.

And though Henin-Hardenne, the world's new No. 1, might surrender leads, she rarely surrenders big matches.

Clijsters, more than anyone, has paid the price, losing to Henin-Hardenne in last year's French Open final and U.S. Open final, then losing to her again Saturday 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, as Henin-Hardenne took a significant step toward becoming one of the sport's greats.

"Kim will win these tournaments; she has the level; she's a great player, and I'm sure it will happen for her," Henin-Hardenne said, sitting comfortably on the terrace of the players restaurant. "At the same time, it must not be easy. I wouldn't want to be in that situation. But I think she's also someone who has her feet firmly on the ground."

Only moments before, Clijsters had been in the restaurant, exchanging no words or glances with Henin-Hardenne and grabbing a slice of cake as her fiance, Australian star Lleyton Hewitt, waited for her. He was passing the time by playing computer games and yelling "Come on Lleyton!" to himself.

The combative Hewitt has won two Grand Slam singles titles, but his wife-to-be has yet to break through. Clijsters said that what helped soften the blow this time was that she played here with a tender left ankle after injuring it last month.

Henin-Hardenne has taken her shot at the top seriously. After breaking through to win two Grand Slam titles, she took two weeks of vacation and headed back to work in late November at the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel with fitness trainer Pat Etcheberry.

"It wasn't easy to go back to work like that again. I admit it," Henin-Hardenne said. "It wasn't that obvious to get remotivated, but Pat was there to push me."

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