Sunday, June 8, 2003

Henin-Hardenne's precision neutralizes Clijsters' power

Champ dedicates win to late mother

The Associated Press

PARIS - Justine Henin-Hardenne won the French Open for Belgium, for her husband and for her coach. She won it for all the players out there who rely more on precision than power.

Mostly, though, she won it for her late mother, who brought a 10-year-old Justine to Roland Garros to watch a tennis match in person for the first time.

In that same stadium Saturday, Henin-Hardenne dominated countrywoman Kim Clijsters from the start for a 6-0, 6-4 victory. She won the first Grand Slam title of her career and the first for the neighboring nation of 10 million.

"I would like to dedicate this victory to my mother, who is watching over me in heaven. I hope you are very proud of me, mother," Henin-Hardenne said. "She gave me all the energy I needed to win the match. When I woke up this morning, I said, 'You'll have to win. You'll have to do it for your mom.' "

After four straight all-Williams major finals, this was the first all-Belgian major final. King Albert and Queen Paola of Belgium sat in the front row, and Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt made the 125-mile trip from Brussels, too.

Predictably, one fan yelled in French, "Go, Belgium!" - just as someone always was clever enough to scream "Go, Williams!" during the sisters' all-in-the-family finals.

While warming up on center court, Henin-Hardenne stole a glance at the seats where she sat with Mom when her favorite player, Steffi Graf, lost to Monica Seles in the 1992 final. Her mother, Francoise, died of cancer nine years ago.

"It was the first tournament I went to. It was just amazing. I was a little girl who was coming to see her idols," said Henin-Hardenne, who is estranged from her father.

"I said, 'One day, I'll be on this court, and maybe I'll win.' And today I did."

And she produced the most lopsided French Open women's final since Graf's 6-0, 6-0 win over Natasha Zvereva in 1988.

Henin-Hardenne has been on the wrong end of that sort of score, having lost the 2001 Wimbledon final to Venus Williams 6-0 in the third set. The Belgian faltered in the late stages of other Grand Slams, too, eliminated in the semifinals three times, including at the 2001 French Open. She blew a 6-2, 4-2 lead against Clijsters that day, but Henin-Hardenne is mentally stronger now.

"Justine is a very emotional person; today was a very big test," said Carlos Rodriguez, her coach since she was 14. "Now I see a girl who is confident of her potential, and I know she can go further."

When Clijsters' forehand hit the net on match point, Henin-Hardenne tossed her racket, looked up to the sky and covered her face.

"Justine just didn't give me anything for free," said Clijsters, who will play in the doubles final today, her 20th birthday. "I hope I can get another chance."

By backing up her semifinal upset of Williams with a win over another hard hitter, No. 2 Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne, 21, became just the ninth player to beat players ranked Nos. 1 and 2 at a major since computer rankings began in 1975.

The 5-foot-5, 125-pound Henin-Hardenne also was pleased to show size doesn't necessarily matter.

"It's good to believe that power is not everything, that we can play with other things. I have to play differently from the other players," she said. "I'm not so tall, I'm not so strong, but I can win."

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