Henin-Hardenne wages subtle war against power game

Women's singles: Belgium's heroine out to transfer form to grass where she will find a title-holder relishing a test of character

Tongue in cheek, your correspondent asked Justine Henin-Hardenne if, a year from now, people may have grown tired of watching all-Belgian finals. The French Open champion smiled and said she hoped not, adding: "You know, Serena and Venus, they are also doing a great job for women's tennis, but it's good to see different faces."

The other "different face" in Paris little more than two weeks ago was the Flemish Kim Clijsters, who was unable to put her game together on a day when her Walloonian compatriot gave an almost flawless display to become Belgium's first-ever Grand Slam singles champion.

Henin-Hardenne was right to pay the Williams sisters due credit, especially since Serena was treated so shabbily by the crowd at Roland Garros during her semi-final loss to the small, slender 21-year-old from Liège.

None the less, it was time for a change after a sequence of four consecutive Grand Slam women's singles final in which Serena, the younger sibling, had beaten Venus. There is scope at Wimbledon for an all-Belgian final or another all-Williams final, the title having resided for the past three years at the home the Americans share in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Prior to that, the championship was won by Lindsay Davenport, the tall, powerful Californian, who drew a line under Steffi Graf's Wimbledon exploits in 1999.

As in Paris, Henin-Hardenne is projected to meet Serena Williams in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, while Clijsters is in Venus' half of the draw. Venus cut a vulnerable figure at the French Open and was ambushed in the fourth round by Vera Zvonareva, an 18-year-old Russian. Well though Zvonareva played, this was not the dominating Venus who defeated Henin-Hardenne in the 2001 Wimbledon final, 6-0 in the third set. "When I was in the final in Wimbledon it was a great moment," Henin-Hardenne recalled, "but I had just lost my grandfather. Tennis is not everything."

Henin-Hardenne sprained three fingers on her left hand in a tumble early in the second set of her latest final against Clijsters, in Den Bosch, Netherlands, on Saturday, and withdrew from the match. She expects to be fit to play her first-round match at Wimbledon tomorrow against Ukraine's Julia Vakulenko.

While it was always Henin-Hardenne's dream to win the French Open, Clijsters does not seem to have a preference among the four Grand Slams, unlike her partner, Lleyton Hewitt, who took possession of the Wimbledon men's singles title last year with typical Australian pride and passion.

Clijsters, who is as sturdy as Henin-Hardenne is slight, salvaged only four games in losing the Paris final in straight sets, and was too nervous to win a single game in the opening set. Clijsters also lost her way when leading Serena Williams 5-1 in the semi-finals at the Australian Open in January.

The notion of subtlety prevailing against power is one to savour, although Henin-Hardenne makes the point that beating strong players was less demanding for her on the slower clay courts, where she has time to organise her game. On the other hand, the neat American Chanda Rubin, who fought through some critical moments last week before successfully defending the Eastbourne title, says she has never believed that size dictates the outcome of matches.

Unless Jennifer Capriati or Davenport raise their games, it is difficult to envisage anyone other than the two Belgians denying Serena Williams a second Wimbledon title, particularly as she is aggrieved about what happened in Paris. It is possible that Venus will challenge her sister, if she has a mind to.

As for the British women, Elena Baltacha, who is due a respite from injuries and ailments, may cause a first-round upset by defeating the No 11 seed Jelena Dokic.

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