Henin-Hardenne dethrones Madrid's queen

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Rudely removing the wheels from the gilded coach of Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin-Hardenne claimed the world No 1 spot for the third time in her career with a 6-2 7-6 victory in the semi-finals of the season's-end Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid yesterday. No matter how she fares in this afternoon's final against the title holder Amélie Mauresmo (a 6-2 3-6 6-3 winner over Kim Clijsters) Henin is installed as queen of the women's game, a title she held for one week and then a further 44 weeks in late 2003-early 2004.

It was a marvellously crafted win, jubilantly celebrated by the 24-year-old Belgian and her entourage, confirming her enduring excellence in reaching all four Grand Slam finals in 2006, although winning only one, the French Open. Perhaps because she was sporting two ugly black tapes on the back of her right leg to counter a muscle strain, Henin went out of the blocks like a 100m sprinter, determined that if she was going to win, it would need to be quickly. In fact, so wretchedly did Sharapova perform for large segments of the contest that all Henin would have needed to do was keep the ball in court.

Thankfully, she chose a more positive course, racing into a 3-0 lead, which she stretched to 5-1 as the Sharapova forehand disintegrated. "I felt sluggish - I wasn't concentrating," admitted the Russian teenager. "There are days when you aren't going to be playing your best, but you hope there is a way to break through."

So did the crowd, solidly behind the new queen of Madrid, as they had been all week while she sailed through her round-robin group without dropping a set. But they were gradually reduced to near silence and Henin claimed the opening set in 34 minutes, Sharapova having managed to hold serve only once in four attempts.

Perhaps the five-man band blasting away during the changes of end did not help Sharapova's attempts to rethink her game, but the shriek which accompanies her every shot subsided to the level of a moaning sigh as forehand after forehand flew wide of the mark or into the net. In contrast, when Henin missed, which was rarely, it was by millimetres.

Even so, Sharapova made a much better fight of it in the second set, matching the Belgian game for game until another service loss, achieved by Henin on a fifth break point, left her trailing 5-3. The Russian response to looming humiliation was robustly typical. She hit out, finding more accuracy at last, to level at 5-5 and then take it to a tie-break.

However, Henin on this day was equal to anything Sharapova could come up with. Two aces, lifting her total to seven, gave her a lead which she never relinquished in that tie-break. Sharapova rescued one match point on a Henin backhand error but then, inevitably, she drove a forehand into the net, the last of a basketful of unforced errors.

"I was gradually getting better towards the end, but I couldn't put together two good points, and against someone like Justine that's not good enough," said Sharapova. "I have had an amazing year but it is always disappointing to lose like this. You always think you could have done better." And so she could.

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