Sunday, September 7, 2003

Henin-Hardenne topples Clijsters


U.S. Open women's final

The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Trying to get some precious sleep in the hours before her first U.S. Open final, Justine Henin-Hardenne kept tossing and turning.

She couldn't stop thinking about her semifinal victory, a three-hour battle of wills that left her physically and mentally drained.

And she couldn't stop worrying about how she would feel back out on court.

Would she fail to recover in time?

Not a chance.

Showing remarkable resiliency, Henin-Hardenne produced all the right shots and beat fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters 7-5, 6-1 Saturday night to win the U.S. Open for her second major title of the year.

"I didn't know if I was going to be able to compete and fight 100 percent. It's hard when you have to play a Grand Slam final when you have only 20 hours to recover," Henin-Hardenne said.

"I've always had a lot of character. I always have been a big fighter."

She fought off two set points in the first set against the No. 1-ranked Clijsters, which must have felt like a minor nuisance compared to what Henin-Hardenne went through to beat Jennifer Capriati in three sets the night before. In that match, Henin-Hardenne was within two points of losing 10 times, trailed 5-3 in the second set and 5-2 in the third, and Capriati twice served for the match.

"Justine had an answer for a lot of my shots," said Clijsters, now 0-3 in Slam finals, including a loss to Henin-Hardenne at the French Open in June. "She was just too good, especially after playing that great match against Jennifer last night - the best match I've seen all year."

Against Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne won nine of the last 10 games and broke serve six times, including in the last game, which ended with a clean volley winner. It helped that Clijsters was tentative all night, with 30 unforced errors in the first set alone and a total of 40, twice as many as Henin-Hardenne.

With a tour-high seven titles in 2003, Henin-Hardenne jumps to a career-high No. 2 in the rankings, ahead of injured Serena Williams.

Still, she isn't exactly a household name in the United States: A representative of the main tournament sponsor called her "Christine" while presenting the champion's trophy and $1 million check during the on-court postmatch ceremony.

For large stretches, the level of play Saturday night was less than stellar, with a slew of break points (16), double-faults (six) and poorly played groundstrokes.

If Henin-Hardenne, who's 21, wasn't in peak form, she had a pretty good excuse.

She left the National Tennis Center at 2:40 a.m. Saturday, two hours after finishing against Capriati. Henin-Hardenne needed intravenous fluids for dehydration that made her left leg cramp late in that match.

Late Saturday afternoon, she was on a practice court, trying to gauge whether she was fit enough to play.

"Last night, when I got off the court, I didn't know what to expect because I was feeling so bad. The doctors and trainers took care of me," Henin-Hardenne said.

"I was feeling tired, a lot of fatigue, and I didn't know if I was going to be able to compete and fight 100 percent. This morning, when I woke up, I knew I was going to play, but I needed more time to see how I felt."

Normally, she would have had more time to prepare for the final, but the women's semifinals were pushed back a day to Friday night because of the rain that disrupted the tournament schedule.

So she took her time between serves against Clijsters, bouncing the ball a few extra times to buy some seconds to rest. But she had plenty of adrenaline.

Henin-Hardenne pretty much sealed the title by breaking to 3-0 in the second set with a full-sprint backhand lob that curled over Clijsters like the tail of a Q. Henin-Hardenne kept jogging and raised a fist in the direction of the guest box, where husband Pierre-Yves, coach Carlos Rodriguez, and personal trainer Pat Etcheberry were sitting.

"I admit I was scared for her last night," Rodriguez said. "I didn't know whether she could come out and do it today."

It's Etcheberry whom the 5-foot-51/2, 125-pound Henin-Hardenne credits with building her strength and fitness, allowing her to compete with the best in the world.

After winning the French Open, she said his workouts often reduce her to tears.

"I'm not afraid anymore about the power of the other players, because I'm powerful, too," Henin-Hardenne said, "and I think that everybody knows it right now."

She and Clijsters are building quite a rivalry, which is rather impressive given that they grew up 15 miles apart in a nation of 10 million people. They have known each other since they were kids, although they couldn't communicate at the start: Henin-Hardenne spoke French, Clijsters spoke Flemish.

While Clijsters won seven of their first nine meetings on the WTA Tour, Henin-Hardenne is 4-1 since, including winning the final of a tournament at San Diego last month. After losing the first set then, Henin-Hardenne asked for treatment for a foot blister, then dropped only five games the rest of the way.

Clijsters had questioned whether the medical help was really necessary, and Henin-Hardenne said after the Capriati match that's why she didn't request a trainer even though she was cramping.

On Saturday night, Clijsters was more gracious.

"It's great that she can recover that quickly," she said. "That just shows how good of an athlete she is, and how much she's worked on her strength and endurance."

Henin-Hardenne jumped out to a 3-0 lead by winning 12 of the first 15 points, thanks to Clijsters' nine unforced errors in that span. But Clijsters eventually went ahead 5-4, then had the two set points. But she couldn't convert either, stymied in part by Henin-Hardenne's first clean winner off her backhand, which John McEnroe has called the prettiest shot in all of tennis.

That began a run of seven consecutive games for Henin-Hardenne, who used a great return to set up a backhand down the line to break to 6-5, then held to win the first set when Clijsters put a forehand in the net.

Clijsters never recovered.

Quick recovery just became Henin-Hardenne's trademark.




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