Henin-Hardenne lives up to promise

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The Independent Online

Towards the end of her perfect day, Justine Henin-Hardenne, the first Belgian to win a Grand Slam singles title, paused during the celebrations to say: "Trophies are symbols, but there are things which are a lot more valuable, like emotions, which remain within your mind forever."

The 21-year-old Henin's life has been awash with emotions. She was only 12, the age at which Martina Hingis won the French junior championship, when her mother, Françoise, died, and two years ago she became estranged from her father, Jose. She said in a recent interview: "When I left my father, it was like leaving prison."

While trying hard to keep her mind on Saturday's French Open final against her compatriot, Kim Clijsters, Henin could not help but be distracted as she practised on the Centre Court a couple of hours before the match. It was not the huge black, yellow and red Belgian flag draped over a block of seats that took her attention. Nor was it the life-sized, cardboard cut-out of her playing one of those exquisite one-handed backhands.

The small, deceptively waif-like Henin's eyes were focused on one of the seats a few rows from the front to the right of the umpire's chair. It was from there that at the age of 10, accompanied by her mother, she saw Monica Seles overcome Steffi Graf, 10-8, in the 1992 final set.

"I was disappointed for Graf, because I was a fan of hers, but it was a very tight match, one of the greatest finals. It was the first time I saw a match live in front of my eyes. I learned some lessons, because they were so determined, they were so proud. I said to my mum: 'One day I'll be on this court and maybe I'll win'."

After fulfilling that promise by defeating Clijsters, 6-0, 6-4, Henin thanked the 15,000 spectators for their support, adding: "Thank you, mother. I hope you are proud of me up there, because I know you are watching me from paradise."

Later, in the interview room, Henin was asked if she had anything to say about her father. "No, not at all," she replied. "You don't live in the past. I took the right decisions. I have the people I want around me. In life you have to make choices, even if they're hard. It was my personal choice, and I think everybody has to accept that."

Last November, Henin married Pierre-Yves Hardenne, which makes her the first married woman to win a Grand Slam singles title since 1987, when the briefly wed Hana Mandlikova defeated Martina Navratilova in three sets.

"Being married has made me feel very comfortable and very secure," Henin said. "It's so important for my tennis. When I go on the court I'm not any more afraid to lose."

That was evident against Clijsters. Although the match was disappointing as a spectacle, the pace, accuracy and consistency of Henin's ground-strokes were astonishing, and she held her nerve while Clijsters floundered.

Clijsters was unable to convert any of her six break points in the opening set, when she seemed to have Henin at her mercy at 0-40 in the second and fourth games. "Justine played too good in those points," Clijsters said. "She was not giving me anything for free." And when Clijsters did break, to 4-4 in the second set, Henin did not capitulate, as she had after leading by a set and 4-1 in their semi-final here two years ago.

Clijsters' partner, Lleyton Hewitt, the Wimbledon men's singles champion and world No 1, watched the final, leaning forward with a hand on his chin for the most part. Clijsters thanked him publicly for staying.

Henin had so many people to thank. There was her husband, of course, even though Pierre-Yves' coughing had kept her awake the night before the match: "But I forgive him now... it's his victory, too." There was her coach, Carlos Rodriguez: "He has always believed in me and and was there with me when I had tough moments in my life." And there was her trainer, Pat Etcheberry. "What I remember right now is the work I did, especially in December, when I was almost crying with Pat in Florida. He said to me: 'Remember these moments when you will hold a trophy'."