Emotional Justine is queen of clay court
Henin-Hardenne wins her third title in four years
Sunday 11 June 2006
Though you could argue about the standard of some of the tennis which brought it about, there was no disputing the merit of Justine Henin-Hardenne's third French Open victory in four years as she thrust aside the challenge of Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4 6-4. There was also no disputing the excellence of what got the Belgian to the final, either. She conceded only 39 games in her seven matches on the way to the title and first prize of £644,000, and became the first winner since Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in 1994 to do so at Roland Garros without dropping a set.
The pair have met a dozen times, Henin pushing the winning margin to 11-1, so the way the final went was no surprise. What did raise eyebrows was the fashion in which the specialty shot of each woman - the one-handed backhand of Henin, reckoned the world's finest, and the Kuznetsova sledgehammer forehand - malfunctioned so miserably. The majority of unforced errors, 38 by Kuznetsova and 30 by Henin, came from their supposed strengths.
The Grand March from Aida by the military band which welcomed the finalists did not herald anything very grand, alas. Perhaps it was the sweltering conditions which undermined them but there was little reason for the massed ranks of Belgian supporters to flourish the red, yellow and black banner of their country, while Russian backing was negligible, bar for those who always root for the underdog.
With her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, and his son wearing football shirts in support of their native Argentina in their courtside box, Henin encouraged her following by breaking in the opening game, courtesy of five embarrassing forehand errors from Kuznetsova. Clearly anxious to put behind her the awful-ness of her forced abandonment through illness of the Australian Open final in January, Henin inexorably seized control of the opening set, breaking serve for a second time to go 4-1 ahead. Time to close it out, surely, but instead Henin stumbled into a torrent of mis-hit ground strokes as the advantage was narrowed to 4-3, at which point Kuznetsova, clearly the less assured of the two, changed her racket.
It certainly did nothing to pep her serve, one delivery trundling over at 57mph, and by virtue of perpetrating fewer errors Henin closed out the first set in 50 minutes. To misquote from the song in Annie Get Your Gun, it was a case of anything you can do, I can do poorer. No wonder the VIP box virtually emptied at this point.
Both had been content to slug it out from the baseline, with some of these rallies being very draining in the heat, but early in the second set Kuznet-sova sparked a cheer by drawing Henin to the net with the first drop shot of the day and then passing her with a thumping forehand. It proved enough to capture the Belgian serve and earn the Russian a 2-0 lead.
This was all part of a dismal run for Henin in which she lost the first 10 points of that second set but, to her credit, she rallied bravely to stem the Kuznetsova onslaught and profited from the ongoing stream of forehand errors from the woman who had won the US Open unheralded in 2004 and done very little of note since.
At last the Belgian flags were being flaunted high in the stands as their heroine pulled level at 2-2 with one of her most spectacular backhands. And, in turn, she produced her lone drop shot of this baseline encounter to take it to 3-3. Then, in the seventh game, Henin smashed through the Russian serve for the fourth, and most telling, time, acknowledging the importance of this by offering a clenched, upraised fist of celebration.
Now the brightness of the afternoon was matched by Henin's shining determination to pull off the Grand Slam which means more to her than any other because of its proximity to her homeland. And as the match moved beyond one-and- a-half hours, she prepared to serve for the title. Her fourth ace helped, followed by a Kuznetsova backhand service return into the net. One of those trademark backhands set up Henin with two match points, and on the second of these Kuznetsova obliged by projecting yet another forehand well beyond the baseline.
So Justine Henin-Hardenne became the first since Steffi Graf in 1995 and 1996 to retain the Roland Garros women's crown. Winning, and then holding on to, a Grand Slam is not proving easy for the ladies, since the only one to do so since Steffi, until yesterday, was Serena Williams (Wimbledon 2002-03).
As Henin hoisted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, Kuznetsova prudently stepped aside to avoid the possibility of collision. Clearly, yesterday she knew her place, and afterwards the 20-year-old promised the crowd, in English: " I will play smarter next time". She will need to, since Henin clearly has her number at the moment.
As for Henin, who was close to tears, the admission was hearteningly frank: "It was not my best tennis, but I did what I had to do."
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