Henin lands knock-out blow for lightweight division

US Open: All-Belgian women's final leaves world No 1 still without major title
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The Independent Online

The night after the night before, Justine Henin-Hardenne, proudly grasping the United States Open women's singles trophy for the first time, was still talking about her astounding win against Jennifer Capriati in the semi-finals. And so was everybody else.

This was not because Henin's triumph on Saturday night against her Belgian compatriot, Kim Clijsters, in the final, 7-5, 6-1, was incidental. Henin did, after all, need nourishment from an intravenous drip in the early hours of Saturday morning before finishing the job with panache.

But it has been a long time since a women's contest thrilled spectators as much as Henin's gutsy 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 win on Friday against Capriati, who had served for the match at 5-3 in the second set and 5-3 in the final set and nine times came within two points of victory.

Suddenly, in spite of American disappointment about losing Capriati, the dampener placed on the women's tournament by the absence of the injured Serena and Venus Williams was lifted. Spectators gasped at the deeds of the dynamic 5ft 6in, 126lb competitor from the Low Countries, as efficient as George Foreman's "lean, mean grilling machine" advertised in the stadium.

What followed was a Belgian domestic duel of international proportions as Henin and Clijsters continued their superficially friendly rivalry. Beneath the surface smiles, compliments, and pecks on the cheek, the two women tend to regard each other like piranhas.

That Clijsters is the world No 1 without the portfolio of a Grand Slam title irks Henin more than she cares to admit. It may have been an additional motivational factor in her cramp and dehydration-defying performance in reaching and winning the final to be within a few bytes of her countrywoman at No 2 in the computer rankings.

Criticised by Clijsters in the past for calling for the trainer at crucial moments in matches, Henin said that was why she decided not to ask for treatment during the Capriati match. "I thought, 'People are going to talk a lot about my attitude again', and I'm a fair player," Henin said. "It was a big mistake, because I needed the trainer. I was cramping a lot. I could have had a serious injury."

Clijsters, acutely aware that she is the only player without a major title to reach No 1 since WTA rankings started in 1975, put extra pressure on herself in the final and lacked the sharpness that enabled her to dispose of her six previous opponents without dropping a set.

"I was definitely a little bit more nervous," Clijsters said. "I think that's why I made a slow start. On the other hand, I was playing the best player in the whole tournament. Justine was just too strong again. She had an answer for a lot of my shots. She just dealt with it really well."

Clijsters said she was not surprised by Henin's powers of recovery from the semi-final: "Because she's a very fit player, she had enough time, I think, to recover. Her movement is the strongest part of her game. She definitely moved really well again tonight. It just shows how good an athlete she is, how much she's worked on her strength and endurance."

Give or take a few games, the second all-Belgian Grand Slam final was similar to the first one at the French Open in June, won by Henin, 6-0, 6-4. This time Clijsters managed to find a range and rhythm after losing the opening three games and held two set points with Henin serving at 4-5.

Henin asserted herself, breaking for 6-5 and serving the set out to 15, and her superiority was obvious in the second set as she served solidly, fashioned wonderful backhand passes, beat Clijsters with the forehand, made and retrieved drop-shots and lobs, and punched home the odd volley.

Undoubtedly the lightweight champion of the women's game, Henin would not have had the stamina to last such a hectic pace two years ago. For example, when she played Clijsters in the 2001 semi-finals of the French Open, Henin dominated the match for almost two sets before tiring and losing in three.

"It's amazing how things have changed in a year," Henin said. "I've always had a lot of character. I've always been a big fighter. The training I do in Saddlebrook [Florida] with Pat Etcheberry is so important. I'm not afraid of the power of the other players any more. I feel I'm strong enough to compete with these kind of players, and I think that everybody knows it right now."

Henin's fame is growing, although the chief executive of the sponsoring J P Morgan Chase Bank, in presenting Henin with the winner's cheque for $1m, addressed her as "Christine". If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.