Henin-Hardenne travels a hard road to claim third title of the year

Young players learn by competing against the best, and the 18-year-old Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova has done a lot of cramming at the Dubai Women's Open. Having defeated Venus Williams in straight sets in the quarter-finals, and dealt similarly with Ai Sugiyama in the semi-finals, Kuznetsova thoroughly tested Justine Henin-Hardenne, of Belgium, the reigning No 1 and defending champion, in the final last night.

In the process, Kuznetsova became a top-20 player and looked capable of breaking into the top 10 before she is much older. Henin won 7-6 6-3 to extend her unbeaten run this year to 14 matches and win her third title. She also defeated the sturdy Kuznetsova in the third round at the Australian Open, after the Russian had served for the second set at 5-3.

Although Kuznetsova did not come so close to taking the Belgian the distance this time, she did recover from 3-1 down in the first set to force the tie-break, and recovered from 3-0 down to 3-3 in the second set and kept Henin on her toes for 85 minutes.

Henin, whose victory on the concrete courts here last year primed her for triumphs at the French Open and the US Open, knew she would have to be on top of her game to discourage Kuznetsova. Although she had won their three previous matches - including in last year's Wimbledon quarter-finals - she had seen her opponent's confidence grow this year. Kuznetsova's win against Venus Williams here gave her enormous impetus. The Russian did not try to kid herself that Williams is anywhere close to being a powerful contender after so much inactivity - and Williams herself admitted that it was a good time for an eager opponent to catch her.

But the concentrated yet relaxed manner of Kuznetsova's victory, and the way she was able to capitalise on Williams' lack of mobility by hitting deep drives into the corners, convinced the 2001 world junior champion that she was ready for the big-time. The way she dismantled the experienced Sugiyama in the first set of their semi-final - 6-0 in 18 minutes - alerted Henin to the task she would face.

The Belgian's net play had been particularly impressive, and she broke Kuznetsova in the third game with a crisp backhand volley. Although the Russian prevented Henin from building on her lead, she almost lost her nerve after making a hash of successive points when serving at 3-4, 40-0, This time Henin helped her out by netting a backhand volley. Serving for the set at 5-4, the Belgian was broken when her opponent hit a potent backhand down the line. Henin's experience told in the tie-break, particularly after she double-faulted when leading 5-1. She allowed Kuznetsova only one more point, winning the shoot-out, 7-3.

After winning the opening three games of the second set, the Belgian began to make errors, and a double-fault - one of six in the match - beckoned Kuznetsova back to 3-3. The Russian held for 3-3, only to net a forehand when Henin made the decisive break for 5-3.

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