Henin-Hardenne peaks as first among equals

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The Independent Online

Justine Henin-Hardenne began and ended this year's French Open as the world's best female player on clay. The Belgian did not drop a set - a feat last performed by Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in 1994 - en route to her third Roland Garros title in four years. She conceded only 39 games in her seven matches.

Heaven help the rest when she starts playing well. After her 6-4, 6-4 victory over Svetlana Kuznetsova in Saturday's final, the world No 5 agreed she had won despite being below par. She had slept poorly for a week, felt tired and nervous, and finally wilted in the heat.

"Before a few matches I wasn't feeling that well," she said. "What's good is that I won this Grand Slam tournament without playing my best tennis all the time. That's very important, because sometimes you don't hit the ball as well as you would love to."

If it was a relief for Henin-Hardenne to win her fifth Grand Slam title - Wimbledon, where she reached the final in 2001, is the only major crown she has yet to wear - the manner of her victory did not say much for the state of women's tennis.

The recent consensus has been that the competitiveness of the top group compensates for the lack of strength in depth; until Henin-Hardenne's triumph here, eight Grand Slam titles in a row had been won by different players. However, while it remains true that predicting winners away from the clay is a hazardous business, this is usually due to the physical and mental frailties of the leading players rather than ever-improving standards.

Take Wimbledon later this month. Will Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams, the last two winners, have enough matches in their legs? Did Amélie Mauresmo's meek surrender at Roland Garros signal a return of her mental demons? Does Kim Clijsters, having announced her intention to retire next year, have sufficient ambition? Is Nadia Petrova, perhaps the most anonymous world No 3 in history, anything more than a flat-track bully? Will a lack of power tell against Martina Hingis?

Kuznetsova and Henin-Hardenne are arguably the form players. The Russian has enjoyed her best run since winning the 2004 US Open but often flatters to deceive. Having won 10 points in a row at the start of the second set here, she then lost eight out of nine. Kuznetsova's forehand, usually her greatest weapon, misfired horribly.

While Henin-Hardenne rarely lacks mental fortitude, the demands on her slight physique exact their toll. It took her 15 months to get over a virus and she had to retire during this year's Australian Open final because of stomach problems. Peaking for Paris is a triumph of preparation, but its legacy could be seen last year at Wimbledon, where she lost in the first round to Eleni Daniilidou.

Henin-Hardenne knows her limits and will switch to grass with limited expectations. "I'm dreaming of winning Wimbledon one day, but I'm not as familiar with the surface as here," she said. "I'll see what I can do."