Justine time as Pierce is swept away

French Open: Henin-Hardenne back to imperious best as she drops just two games to home heroine
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It did not even need the sporadic sprinkles of rain to render this match a damp squib. Justine Henin-Hardenne wrapped up a crushing 6-1 6-1 victory over Mary Pierce to collect her second French Open and her fourth Grand Slam title. It was all over in 62 embarrassing minutes, which tended to diminish the excellence of the tennis flowing from the racket of the winner, known as Ju-Ju to the thousands of fellow Belgians who did their share of filling the Court Philippe Chatrier.

It did not even need the sporadic sprinkles of rain to render this match a damp squib. Justine Henin-Hardenne wrapped up a crushing 6-1 6-1 victory over Mary Pierce to collect her second French Open and her fourth Grand Slam title. It was all over in 62 embarrassing minutes, which tended to diminish the excellence of the tennis flowing from the racket of the winner, known as Ju-Ju to the thousands of fellow Belgians who did their share of filling the Court Philippe Chatrier.

At 30 and with just one tournament win since she lifted this title five years ago, Pierce was an unlikely finalist. Yet, as she had moved through the field with increasing assurance and confidence, there were some who retained belief against the odds that she might, just might, provide the nation with a winner who, despite being born in Montreal and raised in the United States, could pass the Trades Description Act as French.

With Pierce, alas, you never know who is going to turn up. Would it be Extraordinary Mary, or perhaps Contrary Mary. In fact, what we got was Mary from the Dairy, playing as if from a three-legged milking stool. In the most one-sided women's final here since Steffi Graf destroyed Natasha Zvereva without the loss of a single game in 1988, Pierce sadly could not even take inspiration from the loud and loyal support she received.

So Henin, 23 last Wednesday, clocked up the 23rd title of her career and extended her unbeaten run this year to 24 matches, including four titles - Charleston, Warsaw, Berlin, and now Roland Garros. How appropriate if she had also opted to sport the number 23 favoured by Michael Jordan and David Beckham. However, the little, white-capped Belgian required no symbols or omens to walk away with this final. Nothing more was needed than solid, accurate hitting, and this she possessed in abundance.

Pierce contrived to avoid tears as the pair embraced at the net, but by the time Christian Bimes, the French Tennis Federation president, presented her with the loser's plate the flow had begun, and when called to speak she needed a long time to compose herself. Henin, led by the hand to the dais by a ball boy, was cheerful, as one might expect, pleasing the crowd by addressing them for a change in fluent French and offering special thanks to her coach of nine years, Carlos Rodriguez, despite his having loudly ordered her in an earlier match to cut out the showboating side of her game. All the time Pierce clutched her prize close to her chest, as if in disbelief that she had even finished second in this two-horse, one-sided race.

Pierce started briskly enough by winning the opening game, courtesy of a couple of Henin mishits. How the crowd cheered! Even when she proceeded to lose the next three games without collecting a single point their faith was only mildly shaken. Any other nationality but French and they would have been demanding a tumbril.

Though she managed to stem the awfulness of the decay by winning a point or two, with every robust winner resoundingly cheered, Pierce found herself a set down with 24 minutes played, having delivered a brace of double faults in quick succession. Her share of it had been a miserable eight points. The statuesque one had struck some stunning poses, cleaned the baseline efficiently with the sole of her shoe and jogged on the spot to interesting effect, but there was only one real player out there on the day.

Under darkening clouds, and then intermittent rain, Henin swept the first three games of the second set, extending her run to nine straight games, as Pierce struck out even harder and inevitably more wildly. There were smashes into the bottom of the net, volleys which threatened courtside spectators, booming groundstrokes which hardly bounced before thundering into the backstop.

Still they cheered her, and Pierce responded by holding serve with a shriek of joy and strutting as if the title was almost hers. However, it was the sort of day when even Henin's mishits tended to fall in, and as the Belgian moved to a 4-1 lead, a lone trumpeter struck up. As an attempt to lift their heroine, it sounded more like "The Last Post", and Mary's attempt at a brave smile took wing as a grimace.

In a desperate attempt to turn round the runaway horse, Pierce abandoned the big hitting in favour of floated returns. If Henin was baffled, it certainly did not show. Pierce dropped her delivery for the fifth time, another double fault not exactly helping her cause.

Serving for the match and the first prize of £610,560, Henin could afford the luxury of a double fault herself at match point, thus showing she was also fallible, if not so fallible as her opponent. Pierce promptly obliged on the next match point with a limply netted backhand, her 29th unforced error.

For Henin, out of action for much of last year with a debilitating virus, hobbled by a knee injury at the start of this season and labouring throughout this tournament with an ailing back, it was vindication of her belief that dedication has its rewards. Now she moves up to seventh in the rankings and, provided the body holds together, it should not be long before she is back at No 1.

"Now I must rest and get ready for Wimbledon," said Henin, who has pulled out of next week's Eastbourne tournament. "That's my next goal."

Comments