You never saw Justine Henin-Hardenne's teeth until the job was done. That's the essence for me of her two-sets semi-final victory over fellow Belgian, Kim Clijsters, yesterday, in what was a darn good match for the spectators. Both girls played good tennis, moving fine, hitting well, competing. There was real quality out there and it did the stage justice.
The difference in my view was Henin's spunk and determination. You never saw her teeth. She never opened her lips. That was the vast difference. It would have been instructive to take a picture of each girl's face every minute, and at the end line all the shots up and look along them.
On Henin's face there would be nothing, frame after frame. It was almost a trance, no sign of emotion. No little grin of "I'm doing a great job, you're doing a great job, what a show we're giving these good folks". Now look along the Clijsters shots. You see that? There's a little smile, just sometimes. And there's another. And there's the difference. One enjoyed it. For the other, it was a matter of life and death.
One point of interest where single-mindedness manifested itself was with Clijsters a break up in the second, at 3-2 and serving, and Henin had just won the point for 0-15. Then Henin coughed a little and, needing a drink, went to the net and got one. I genuinely have no idea whether this was gamesmanship, something conscious, deliberate. I really don't know, and actually this specific example is not the issue. The interesting thing is if you look back in history to times when players have done something like this - and lots have, and nobody did it better than Johnny Mac, all the time - you need to ask what position were they in right then? Were they down, or ahead?
I'm telling you it happens much more often when the answer is down, at just the time when a break in the opponent's momentum would be quite nice, thank you very much. So is it deliberate or instinctive, or neither? The facts are there, and I don't know in this case. You decide.
Back to Henin's focus, I believe it is just as likely to have been her focus rather than Clijsters' lack of it that caused Clijsters to falter slight at key times, like when she dropped her serve to love in the first set, and dropped it again when 6-5 ahead and serving in the second. Of course it could have been a choke - that's a possibility. But in a good match, I don't think so this time.
On the subject of choking, Amélie Mauresmo held herself together superbly, even after a wobble, to beat Maria Sharapova in three sets and earn herself her first Wimbledon final place after three semis in four years (and she missed the other year). She was excellent, not least mentally. As for Maria, hitting hard, flat balls is no longer enough. She needs to add to her game, as the best of the rest have added, and are adding.
Two-on-one drills for the 40-plus
This week I'll be answering some of the questions you've been sending to me along with your email applications to win a one-month scholarship at my Florida academy. The prize is for one student (Under-18s only). Just tell me: how can I help you, and why? Duncan Watkins asked today's question. At 47, having played only for brief summer weeks in his teens, he's enjoying the game again. "How best to improve quickly?" he asks. "I'm generally playing with people a lot better than me, particularly in doubles. How can I catch them up? Are there any intensive courses?" First, play more singles, to improve reaction time. Singles demands you return better and move better. And do two-against-one drills, using the singles court. Playing as the one, you improve cross-court shots and your movement. Playing as one of the two, you poach and volley, and you're also required to serve-volley better. My handbook has 40 pages of drills, or visit my website for advice for all ages. Enjoy your game.
Love for the game sets an example
We've got two shining examples this week of players who love the game from their souls. Jonas Bjorkman, who plays in today's semi-finals against Roger Federer, is 34 and has been enjoying the twilight, not only on the main stage but incredibly in the doubles and mixed doubles, too. Martina Navratilova, 49, has been in two events, and though she bowed out yesterday, she showed the game is underneath her skin. It's not about money for these guys. You can't teach a player to stay in shape so long, be focused for so many years. It's about the game, and their love for it. What an example they set to kids to get out there, get exercise, not tennis necessarily, but respect yourselves, look after yourselves. Because that's what Bjorkman and Navratilova are showing. They have spirit, and they respect themselves. If everybody, in every walk of life, showed such passion, the world would improve every day. Bjorkman has little chance today: his legs must be tired, his engine out, running on fumes. But he's done so much already.
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