Henin-Hardenne overpowers Davenport after sluggish start

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The Independent Online

Justine Henin-Hardenne's gruelling three-hour win over Lyndsay Davenport at last year's Australian Open was widely regarded as the turning-point in her career, the breakthrough that propelled her to her first Grand Slam title a few months later at Roland Garros.

The Belgian, who also won the US Open and ended the year as No 1, overcame severe cramps to beat the American triple Grand Slam champion for the first time in six encounters. So when the pair met again at Melbourne Park in the quarter-finals yesterday, expectations of another epic battle were high.

It was not to be. The match - all the more eagerly anticipated after a tearful Amelie Mauresmo, the No 4 seed, pulled out of the tournament with a back injury - was over in a relative trice as Henin-Hardenne pulled off a 7-5, 6-3 victory in one hour, 27 minutes.

The top seed made a slow start, losing the first four games as Davenport overpowered her with a barrage of hard hitting. But after breaking the American's serve in the fifth game, Henin-Hardenne began to play more aggressively and the pair exchanged breaks of serve - seven in total - before the 21-year-old Belgian saved three set points at 5-4 down.

With the No 5 seed dejected, Henin-Hardenne broke her serve in the next game to go 6-5 up and then took the set after a forehand error by Davenport. The 27-year-old American started to look tired as the smaller, more agile Henin-Hardenne ran down every ball and won most of the long rallies. The latter broke serve three times in the second set, letting out an exultant cry of "Allez!" as victory approached, and clinched her semi-final place on the third match point.

"Lyndsay was playing unbelievably at the beginning, and I wasn't ready for that," Henin-Hardenne said. "But I just kept fighting. What I did last year gave me a lot of confidence, and it helps me in these kinds of matches. I'm a different player now, with much more experience."

Davenport said: "I'm disappointed that I had the opportunities and wasn't able to take them. There are a lot of times when the matches turn around on those really close games. You've got to be able to pull some of those out, and I just wasn't able to."

Henin-Hardenne has an unexpected semi-final opponent, Fabiola Zuluaga, after Mauresmo withdrew shortly before her quarter-final against the Colombian yesterday morning. The Frenchwoman, who strained a back muscle in her fourth-round match against Alicia Molik, decided during the warm-up that the pain was too severe.

Mauresmo was bitterly disappointed, particularly with so many top players absent from this year's draw. Wiping away tears with a towel, she said: "I felt I was playing some good tennis and I had some opportunities in this tournament."