Henin plans to cut Williams down to size

Belgian teenager will depend on versatility and potent backhand to overcome defending champion's physical attributes
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The Independent Online

Wherever Martina Hingis happens to be today, the uneasy world No 1 may take some consolation from the fact that one of her diminutive sister players is about to enter tennis's greatest arena to challenge an amazon of the sport.

Justine Henin is waif-like even beside the 5ft 7in Hingis, who has found herself in one or two Popeye versus Blutto contests of late, so imagine how fragile the 5ft 53/4 inch Belgian will seem when she walks on the Centre Court alongside Venus Williams, 6ft 1in of power and athleticism.

Maureen ("Little Mo") Connolly dominated heftier opponents during her brief, glorious career in the 1950s and the elegant Maria Bueno and graceful Evonne Goolagong each managed to dethrone the tall, athletic Margaret Smith-Court, which the feisty Billie Jean King was unable to accomplish in two Wimbledon finals against "Big Marge".

But in the modern era, boosted by synthetic rackets and scientific training and radar speed guns that record 125mph serves, it is harder to find players in the women's game ­ and in the men's come to that ­ with the skill and guile to compensate for a lack of physical stature.

Hingis has a smart game and a smart mind, as she demonstrated with precocious glee in winning five Grand Slam singles titles, including Wimbledon, from the age of 16. Her last major triumph was in Australia in 1999, since when her overall consistency on the WTA Tour has enabled her to cling to her No 1 ranking. But when the crunch has come recently, in the formidable shape of Venus or Serena Williams or Jennifer Capriati, Hingis has tended to buckle.

If it seemed unfair to the British women's game that America can boast two major champions from the same household, Belgium's surge of success is embarrassing. A nation of 10 million, 180,000 of whom play tennis regularly, is suddenly going potty about the exploits of the 19-year-old Henin, Belgium's first Wimbledon singles finalist, a month after Kim Clijsters, 20, reached the French Open final, having beaten Henin in the semi-finals.

Clijsters, a more robust figure than Henin, narrowly failed to defeat Capriati in the final in Paris, and was expected to be a more threatening presence than her compatriot on the Wimbledon lawns. The towering Lindsay Davenport, the 1999 champion, allowed Clijsters only three games in the quarter-finals, and Williams out-gunned Davenport in the semis.

Henin, the eighth seed, looked a comparative novice on grass ­ which she is ­ while struggling through her second-round match against Kristie Boogert, and did not cause much of a stir until out-playing Conchita Martinez, the 1994 champion, for the loss of only one game in the quarter-finals.

The way Henin turned the semi-final around against Capriati, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, after a treatment break to ease a blistered foot, showcased her talent. Able to move swiftly and freely, Henin constructed points with geometric precision and Capriati began to shrink.

While is would be misleading in many ways to compare the Williams-Henin duel to a match-up between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who generated the greatest rivalry the women's game has known, there are certain similarities: Navratilova, the strong attacking player; Evert, the dainty counter-puncher from the baseline.

Before Navratilova makes mincemeat of your correspondent, it must be emphasised that the nine-time Wimbledon champion's serve and volley style was magnificent and sustained a level of excellence beyond Williams, however long she plays.

And Evert virtually patented the two-handed backhand beloved of the majority of players who followed her. Henin's one-handed backhand, a weapon favoured by "Little Mo" Connolly, is one of the most effective shots on the tour, and the versatility of her game keeps opponents guessing.

"I'm not afraid of the size of players, because I can move well on the court," Henin says. "I have a good attitude. I'm not afraid to do serve and volley, to slice a little bit more, to be aggressive and go to the net.

"Venus is playing well on the grass court. When everything is in, it's difficult to play against her. But I won against Capriati, and maybe I can also beat Venus. I believe I have a chance to win this tournament."

Williams is confident that her big game and greater experience will be decisive. "It just seems that when it comes to the larger matches I'm able to raise the level of my game," she says. "It makes me think: 'Why didn't I play so well in the first rounds?' But maybe I didn't have to play that well.

"In any match, when I serve well it's so much easier for me, and it makes my opponent think a lot about having to break me."

If the Williams serve is in gear, the American is still likely to be looking at her opponent from a great height at the presentation ceremony. But anybody inclined to put a protective arm around Henin's shoulders before the start should be reminded that appearances can be deceptive.