These days Belgian tennis – women’s tennis – is big news, thanks to the exploits of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, not to mention fast-rising Yanina Wickmayer. But from the late 1980s till the new millennium the country’s flag was flown by a lefthander called Sabine Appelmans. Voted Belgium’s sportswoman of the year in 1990 and 1991, vivacious Appelmans, now 37, won seven singles and four doubles titles on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, rising as high as No.16 in the rankings. She also represented her country with distinction in Fed Cup play, and in 2007 was duly accorded the honor of being appointed team captain.
We caught up with Sabine during Belgium’s recent Fed Cup World Group II win – minus Clijsters and Henin – over Poland in Bydgoszcz.
Sabine, it’s been a stunning year for Belgian tennis – how has it felt from your perspective?
SA: Just so exciting – everyone in Belgium is again very interested in tennis. Kim and Justine both came out firing from the first tournament, and the past year Yanina has been amazing, winning three tournaments, reaching the semis at the US Open. She’s Top 15 now, she’s a lot more confident. Kirsten Flipkens is getting close to her best level too – I think she just needed a little more time to grow. People are talking about maybe having three Top 10 players by the end of the year and winning the Fed Cup in the next couple of years. There’s still a long way to go but the potential is there. The great thing is they are also really nice personalities – role models.
You retired in 2001 but you’re a couple of years younger than Kimiko Date Krumm… could another spectacular Belgian comeback be on the cards?
SA: Ha! What Kimiko has done is incredible. The thing is, she was a phenomenal athlete the first time around – just so fit, such a great mover. It’s relatively easy to decide to make a comeback, but I know what it would take to get to that stage of even starting to play tournaments, and then to keep it up. So, no, no comeback.
You enjoyed a distinguished Fed Cup playing career – did you ever imagine you’d be leading the side one day?
SA: It is a dream come true but it’s not something I expected. Representing my country in Fed Cup meant a great deal to me as a player, and I still love that team environment: I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing the players dig deep and do well. For me, I think the opportunity came along at the right time – I would have felt a bit strange if I was any younger. Kim and I won the doubles title at Antwerp together in 2000 but there’s an age gap between me and her and Justine. And the younger ones don’t remember me as a player, only as a coach and captain.
What else keeps you busy these days?
SA: First of all I’m mother to two boys, Obi and Arno, so it’s busy enough in my house! But I do tennis commentary Belgian TV – I went to Australia in January – and it’s always nice to see my ex-counterparts doing similar jobs. I’ve also started leading tennis camps in Turkey and Egypt, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
And for fun?
SA: I still love sports: swimming, running, skiing, water skiiing, badminton… I also enjoy day cures, a massage, a good book, a day at the sea with the kids.
Did you know when you retired that you wanted to stay so involved in tennis?
SA: I had married Serge Haubourdin, who was my coach, in 1997 and we wanted to start a family. Actually I became pregnant with Obi two months after playing my last tournament, so I quickly had my mind on other things. But yes, tennis and being active was always so important to me. I did a fitness video while I was still playing and the TV opportunities came along very quickly. Since retiring I’ve gained my coaching credentials.
You’re a lefty, but there’s a cute story attached to that…
SA: Yes, when I first started learning to play, I pretended to be left-handed so I could stay in the same coaching group as my friend. My parents were really confused when they saw me play! Even now, I am still very much right-handed in every other respect, and have to consciously exercise my left hand.
How did your tennis develop in those early years?
SA: When I was 11 the Flemish Tennis Federation gave me the chance to go to a tennis boarding school. My parents were initially less enthusiastic to see their daughter leave, but I was determined to go. I’d come home on weekends but otherwise mostly we’d talk on the ohone on Wednesdays. The workload could be heavy, and my Hungarian coach knew how to crack the whip, but I was happy doing tennis and study. When I was 15 I became Belgian champion and I realized I was on track to make tennis my profession, but my trainer encouraged me to finish my sports science studies at Atheneum Berchem in Antwerp. The combination was hard because from the time I was 16 I was abroad so much, but it helped me to have a somewhat normal life besides the Tour. By the time I graduated I was in the Top 50.
As a youngster, did you have an idol?
SA: Chris Evert. I was in my early teens at the time when Chris and Martina were playing all the finals.
Finest moment on a court?
SA: That’s a tough question. I think winning that first Tour title is always special – I won mine at Phoenix in 1991, beating Chanda Rubin in the final. The very next week I won my second title at Nashville, so everything was going well at that point! I also cherished playing at three Olympics and Fed Cup because then you had friends around you. I need social contact and I found the circuit a bit lonely at times – every man for himself, so to speak. But you forget the less fun things.
Is there a loss that still sticks in your mind – one that got away?
SA: That’s easier to pinpoint. My first big Fed Cup match at home in Belgium. I was in a winning position and let it slip; I just wanted so badly to do well.
Who was your toughest opponent?
SA: Monica Seles – she was just so powerful, so relentless. I don’t want to downplay Steffi Graf, but I managed to beat Steffi once. There were several great players during that period; I had good matches with Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Jana Novotna as well.
Did you have a favorite Tour stop?
SA: I always loved to play in Australia, I had my best Grand Slam result there (quarterfinals in 1997) and in fact chose to play my last tournament there, at the Australian Open in 2001. A group of us, including Kim, took a picnic and went to a production of Shakespeare in a park in Melbourne – it was magical. After the tournament my husband and I toured Australia and went to Fiji. It was an unforgettable journey.
What were your strengths as a player and, looking back, do you feel you maximized your potential?
SA: I was stubborn, a fighter, and I had the advantages that come with being left-handed. Could I have done more? That’s hard to say. At the time I think you feel you are doing everything you can. In hindsight it’s easier to see things differently, but I have no real regrets.
If you could have played in another era, which would you choose?
SA: I wouldn’t choose another era, though I would say that the players today have so many opportunities open to them, and of course the rewards are increasing all the time.
Among the current crop of players, who do you like to watch playing?
SA: Federer, of course. And although it will sound biased, I love to watch Kim and Justine and Yanina – they all go after every point.
Hypothetical question: Kim and Justine both make themselves available for Fed Cup, but Yanina is ranked higher than one or both of them. What do you do?
SA: I don’t want to think about it! I would say it’s a good problem to have, except I don’t think there would be a problem. They are all professionals, they know how tennis works. These things have a way of sorting themselves out.
Sabine’s Flemish-language official website can be found at www.appelmans.com.
courtesy of www.sonyericssonwtatour.com