Henin-Hardenne digs deeper than Sharapova

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The Independent Online

They struggle to cope with even a hint of bad weather in the United Arab Emirates. Light showers last week constituted the heaviest rain to fall in the region for 10 years and brought chaos to the roads, with 1,200 accidents reported over two days in the city of Dubai alone.

Maria Sharapova might have hoped she had ridden the storms, which had so disrupted the Dubai Duty Free Women's Open that she had to beat Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport on the same day to reach the final. Unfortunately for the former Wimbledon champion, she still had to face Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Off the court the Belgian can look out of place alongside some of the Amazons who have muscled their way to the top of the women's game. On it she is one of the fiercest competitors, as she proved with her 7-5, 6-2 victory. It was her third success in this tournament and her second title of the year. Her only defeat in 2006 came in the Australian Open final, when a stomach complaint forced her to retire against Amélie Mauresmo.

Nursing knee and shoulder injuries and still suffering stomach problems, Henin-Hardenne said she had been operating below full capacity, which made her performance all the more remarkable. The first set containedthunderous winners, exquisite touches and occasional forays beyond the baseline.

With her long legs and long reach, Sharapova can be at her most dangerous when hitting balls wide on either side. Henin-Hardenne concentrated on the centre of the court, denying her space. "She likes to hit winners and I don't think she likes it when the ball keeps coming back to her all the time," Henin-Hardenne said afterwards.

Sharapova conceded only two points in her first three service games and led 5-3 after an exquisite drop shot set up a break, but Henin-Hardenne broke back immediately and the match turned when the 18-year-old Russian was the victim of what looked to be a poor line call on the first point at 5-5. Henin-Hardenne won seven of the next eight points to take the set.

Afterwards both players said they were exhausted after playing three matches in less than 36 hours. The difference was that Sharapova showed it.

Sharapova hung on until 2-2 in the second set, whereupon Henin-Hardenne went up yet another gear to win the last four games and deny the Russian victory in her first final since her success at Edgbaston last summer. She has lost in six subsequent semi-finals, including three Grand Slams.

"I'm very tired, even if I didn't want to show it on the court," Henin-Hardenne said. "I always try to keep these things to myself, which is sometimes a mistake because I push myself beyond my limits. My body is very sore now. My shoulder, my knee, everything's hurting, but I always try to play with my fighting spirit."

The $1m [£570,000] on offer helped to attract four of the world's top five - the injured Kim Clijsters excepted - and the organisers revealed after the final that prize money will increase by 50 per cent next year.

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