08 Nov 2017

Van Baarle making up for lost time and opportunity

News Article

By Harvey Fialkov

Photo: Giorgio MaiozziKlaartje Van Baarle (BEL)

It’s no secret that the tiny country of Belgium has turned out two of the greatest women tennis players in history in Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.

Unfortunately for Klaartje Van Baarle, she was born nearly 20 years before the two aforementioned Hall of Famers. Because she didn’t take tennis seriously until she was 15, the Royal Belgian Tennis Federation chose not to financially support her development.

“At first, I didn’t like tennis because I was the worst,’’ smiled Van Baarle, the top seed in the women’s 50s ITF Seniors World Individual Tennis Championships at Miami's North Shore Tennis Center. “After a year I faced it and improved so much and felt good and played hard. But the federation thought I was too old.’’

Now, 53, a petite, young-looking Van Baarle is making up for lost time and opportunity. She has become one of the most dominant players on the ITF Seniors Circuit, reaching No. 1 in 2001 in her first season at 37.

Since then she has compiled an astounding 188-3 record, while winning World Seniors Individuals singles titles in 2006, ’07, ’09, and ’15 as well as three more world titles in other events.

On Tuesday, she cruised to a 61 60 victory over Homedes Carballo of Spain to reach the quarterfinals where she will meet eighth-seeded Gretchen Rush, who soared to No. 22 on the pro tour and reached three singles and four doubles quarterfinals in Grand Slams.

“She had me match point a few years ago in the World semifinals, but I won,’’ Van Baarle said proudly, if not accurately, according to Rush.

“I was two points from the match,’’ corrected Rush, who eventually lost 6-7(2) 61 75 to her.

Rush, 0-2 against Van Baarle, will get another crack at her after pulling out a 63 16 62 victory over 16th-seeded Christiane Tassi of Brazil.

Rush, who won three singles titles and three doubles titles during a pro career that spanned 1986-92, has won too many gold balls to count while winning the USTA Hard Courts five times, the National Indoors twice and National Grass Courts once from 2004 to 2012. But she has yet to win a World Seniors gold medal.

“That’s on my bucket list,’’ said Rush, a Pittsburgh native, who raised three children in San Diego and Texas where she coaches women’s tennis at Trinity University in San Antonio, where she was a four-time All-American.

“It’s not so much giving back, but more paying my dues,’’ said Rush, who kept running into legends like Martina Navratilova, Andrea Jaeger and Chris Evert in Grand Slam draws, but did reach the Wimbledon mixed doubles final with Kelly Jones in 1988.

“I’ve had wonderful coaches in my life. I tell them the game has taught me everything I needed to know about life, to fight to the end, dream big and believe in yourself.’’

At 20, Van Baarle tried the pro circuit, but mostly in France where she reached a career-high 1288, but quit after a year because her funds ran out. She gave up tennis for eight years, but eventually taught tennis at a renowned academy in Waregem where she coached future pros Dick Norman, Els Callens and Xavier Malisse, who reached ranks of 85, 43 and 19 respectively.

She’s on a first-name basis with Clijsters and actually played Henin twice, once in the semifinals of the Belgian Championships and then in a team competition.

“I was 35 and Justine was 16,’’ Van Baarle recalled. “I lost 64 62 and in team, 62 62. I saw Kim at the annual federation awards banquet and she gave me a big hello. They gave me a bottle of champagne and Kim won Player of the Year again.

“When I’m here around the Seniors I feel very good because everyone respects me, but at home, nobody knows me. Seniors tennis isn’t important.’’

Van Baarle may be the Rodney Dangerfield of Belgium, but she is feared with a racket in her hand on the Seniors Circuit.

“She’s a fighter and because she started late has a young body,’’ said Rush, who wears a huge brace on her surgically repaired knee but still flashes an elegant all-court attack.

One of Rush’s favorite memories came off the court when she and her idol, Billie Jean King, were giving speeches to teenagers at a USTA National tournament in San Diego.

“I showed the kids one of my gold balls, my Wimbledon trophy and my participation medal from the 1984 Summer Olympics. “I told them that’s why you’re doing this.

“Billie said she had never received a gold ball, so I gave her mine. That’s what tennis is all about, the relationships you make along the way.’’

Rush then played doubles with longtime friend and Tour peer, Ros Nideffer, and the top-seeded duo who once stunned Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver in a Virginia Slims match, easily advanced into the semifinals.

The second-seeded Nideffer, who reached No. 15 in 1990, advanced into the quarterfinals with a straight-set victory over 12th-seeded Cathy Benson.

Nideffer, also a multiple USTA National champion, won her only World singles title in 2012 in her hometown of San Diego, but lost in the doubles final with Rush.

“It’s great to play doubles again with Ros,’’ Rush said.