Justine Henin spoke of the immense respect she holds for Kim Clijsters after the pair booked a dream all-Belgian final at the Brisbane International.
The eyes of the sporting world will be watching Pat Rafter Arena on Saturday night as the pair do battle for the 23rd time on the WTA tour – their 11th clash in a final.
While a huge fillip for tournament organisers, Henin admitted it was the “perfect situation” for her to meet her long-time rival in the decider in her return from a 20-month hiatus.
The big-name wildcard coolly swept aside Ana Ivanovic 6-3 6-3 in her Friday semi-final before top seed Clijsters overcame a topsy-turvy first set to prevail 6-4 6-2 over German surprise-packet Andrea Petkovic.
After preparing for her return for five months, Henin said she was surprised to immediately have the chance to add to her 41 career titles.
“It’s a perfect situation for me as I’m in the final of my first tournament,” she said. “It’s a great feeling.
“Eighteen months with no competition is not easy … this is more than I could expect to be in the final.”
Henin holds a 12-10 head-to-head advantage, courtesy of three consecutive wins, but her long lay-off following a premature retirement gives Clijsters slight favouritism.
The 27-year-old’s vanquished semi-final opponent Ivanovic found it hard to split the pair, believing Clijsters was in better shape after winning last year’s US Open but Henin would have a clear head with “nothing to lose”.
Second seed Nadia Petrova had her money on Henin after being beaten by her in straight sets in the opening round when the Russian rated her better than when she left the game as No.1.
The Belgians have endured a cool relationship in the past, particularly after Clijsters’ now late father Leo was quoted saying he was surprised such a small player like Henin could be so powerful, leading to reports of doping insinuations.
Clijsters tried her best to minimise the damage and Henin on Friday admitted such reports had created some tension in their camps.
But she stressed while the pair aren’t close, there had never been issues between the two of them.
“There is so much respect between the two of us so, I know sometimes people would love to hear there have been problems between us but that’s not the case – never in the past,” she said.
“I think I respect the person and the player and it’s the same for her.
“We are so different. But we have good memories. When we were younger we were travelling a lot together – the same tournaments – but after that we grew up differently and went in different directions.
“It’s always a good feeling to play against her because it’s always a tough match and it’s always a good challenge.
“I think we’ve helped each other a lot in our careers to get better and I think that’s very good.”
Clijsters expressed the same sentiments about their “big past together”.
“We grew up playing juniors together and I think we always made each other better players,” she said.
“I don’t think anyone, not even in Belgium or in our own groups, expected this would happen.”