Prosper, o country, in unbreakable unity," says Belgium's national anthem. But the country's tennis stars aren't singing that tune. Last month, Kim Clijsters became Belgium's first-ever World No. 1, and Justine Henin-Hardenne won its first Grand Slam titles at the French and U.S. Opens. But their on-court success has been overshadowed by a rivalry that smells nothing like team spirit.
The rocky relations between Clijsters, 20, and Henin-Hardenne, 21, roughly parallel the dividing lines in Belgian society. Clijsters, from the Flemish-speaking north, and Henin-Hardenne, from the French-speaking south, have long been cordial, never close. As they've risen to the top of the tennis world, relations have chilled. Henin-Hardenne has won four of their last five head-to-heads, including the Acura Classic final in August in San Diego. After the match, Clijsters hinted that her rival had taken an injury time-out for strategic reasons, an allegation that echoed Serena Williams' accusations of gamesmanship by Henin-Hardenne at the French Open.
After the U.S. Open final, in which Henin-Hardenne again beat Clijsters, Kim's father Lei made the observation that it was unusual how Henin-Hardenne's "muscle mass has doubled." The Belgian media ran with the comment, fueling chatter about doping. Henin-Hardenne replied, "My only drug is work." But her coach Carlos Rodriguez couldn't resist a stronger verbal volley, saying: "Justine is better than
Lei Clijsters later issued a clarification, crediting Henin-Hardenne's wins to "her hard work." And Kim pledged her camp would say no more; a post on her website announced the decision "not to talk to the press for an unspecified period of time."
The bad news for Belgium and its hopes in the Fed Cup team tournament in November is that neither woman will play for her country for an unspecified period of time, either. Clijsters pulled out of the national squad after slamming the choice of Russia, not Belgium, as Fed Cup host.
Last week, Henin-Hardenne joined her on the sidelines, citing a lower-back infection though, oddly, she will play in the season-ending Tour Championships two weeks before. So Belgium finds itself temporarily back in the position of underdog. Its likely leader is Els Callens, ranked No. 103 and winner of zero WTA Tour titles. Prosper, O country, indeed.
Hold Your Horses, Take A Call
They ride 329 days of the year, often at racetracks hundreds of kilometers apart, and need to keep in touch with trainers and agents to arrange their rides. So when British jockeys heard that the sport's ruling body proposed to bar them from using mobile phones just before races, they were furious. The Jockey Club says the rule is aimed at ensuring the integrity of the sport, which was rocked by several corruption scandals last year. In one case, jump jockey Graham Bradley was banned from riding for eight years for passing information to a bookmaker over the phone.
Outraged jockeys put down their whips last week and refused to ride at meetings across the U.K. The Jockey Club offered concessions, allowing riders to make previously booked calls or collect messages from a special "phone zone" in the weighing room. But the jockeys pointed out that the ruling body was not imposing the same restrictions on trainers and stable staff. The riders have demanded that independent mediators review the situation, otherwise they will go to court. Martin Cruddace, lawyer for 110 of the jockeys, says the phone ban infringes their human rights. The Jockey Club, he says, has taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut: "They have admitted that 99.9% of jockeys are honest, so why are they regulating for 0.1%?" The Jockey Club, though, are adamant that some kind of ban must go through. Before the sides reach the finishing post they'll have to talk. They should probably keep their mobiles switched on.