Paris revels in a Belgian Henin party

French Open: Stylish Justine outclasses compatriot Kim before dedicating her first Grand Slam title to late mother
Click to follow
The Independent Online

At least Kim Clijsters got to kiss the king of her country. There was not much else to be salvaged from the 6-0 6-4 battering she received at the hands of Justine Henin-Hardenne at the French Open yesterday, the first all-Belgian women's final in Grand Slam history. Henin, 21 last Sunday, swept to her first major championship in glorious fashion. At 5ft 5in she hardly possesses the build of a great athlete and, in her white cap and shirt and pale grey skirt, the woman from the Walloon area of Belgium was hardly a blaze of colour, but there was nothing remotely anonymous about her tennis.

Quite how Henin generates so much pace and power from such a frame is something which is probably still puzzling Serena Williams, her semi-final victim. It certainly was far beyond the ability of Clijsters to handle as her compatriot hit the lines time and again, mixed clumping winners with cunning drop shots, searing serves with sumptuously angled volleys. If Martina Navratilova used to be Madame Muscles, Henin is Madame Precision.

She became Madame Henin-Hardenne last September, marrying her childhood sweetheart Pierre-Yves in New York at the close of the US Open. So she is the first married woman to win at Roland Garros since Chris Evert, then Mrs John Lloyd, in 1986.

The match lasted only 67 minutes and half an hour had elapsed before Clijsters even managed to win a game. The irony was that Kim, the second seed, managed to miss eight break points, six of them in that cataclysmic opening set. Mightily though she tried on a gloriously sunny afternoon, there was no way back for Clijsters from such a crevasse. It was a bleak overture to her 20th birthday today.

"But of course I was happy for Justine," said Clijsters, still smiling afterwards. "It is a great occasion for her and she deserved to win today." Henin could hardly find the English to describe the moment: "Winning a Grand Slam is more than I could think." But she was in no doubt that the victory had been dedicated to her mother, Francoise, who died when Justine was 12. "When I came to Roland Garros with her 11 years ago I told her one day I would play on this court. So when I woke up this morning I decided I had to do it for my mum."

Perhaps it was because she had an untroubled trot into the final, Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati having obligingly been swept out of her path, Clijsters was not at her thunderous best. Her 100 games and six hours on court to win six matches contrasted with Henin's 122 games and just under nine hours of toil. And Henin's historic defeat of Serena had inspired, rather than drained her.

Certainly the massed ranks of Belgians with their red, yellow and black flags had an occasion to celebrate rather than a match to test their loyalties, and it was not until Clijsters belatedly got back into it early in the second set that the audience swung behind Kim.

King Albert II and his consort, Queen Paola, in the front row of the VIP box, were the most famous Belgians on view. His Majesty looked a little less than regal in a costermonger-type cap to shade him from the sun, as Henin came fast out of the blocks, breaking Clijsters in the opening game, shrugging off three break points on her own serve and then capturing the Clijsters serve to go 3-0 up.

Three more break points were missed by Clijsters in the next game and when she lost the opening point on her next service game, she swatted a loose ball away angrily. That anger could not be channelled into productive tennis, however. She was missing the lines that Henin was striking, and the realisation hurt. Though she had been a runner-up at Wimbledon two years ago, Henin could not boast the Roland Garros expertise of Clijsters, who had battled Capriati to a 12-10 third set at the Philippe Chatrier Stadium final, also two years ago. So it was to be expected that someone with such fighting credentials would not go quietly.

A Flemish roar greeted Kim's second set recovery from 1-3 to 4-4 with her first service break - to love, no less - albeit on four untypical Henin errors. The jubilation was stilled as Henin immediately broke back and then stepped up to serve for the title. Having demonstrated jangling nerves with a wild double fault, Justine benefited from Clijsters inaccuracy right to the end. She reached match point with a brisk overhead winner and then leapt in delight as a misdirected Clijsters forehand struck the tape and fell back.

Having embraced her friend and rival, Henin disappeared from the court and reappeared in the VIP area to kiss her weeping husband while Clijsters, somehow still smiling, sat waiting for the presentation ceremony, starring the gorgeous Gabriela Sabatini and King Albert, who had by now discarded the cap. Henin picked up a cheque for £581,000 and the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen and, for once, the crowd were able to listen to the winner's gracious speech of thanks in their own language. Kim's speech was in Flemish, French and English, the bit where she paid tribute to her watching boyfriend - "Lleyton, thank you for staying".

The Belgian newspapers, normally silent on a Sunday, prepared special editions on this historic sporting day for their tiny nation. And the girl those papers call Juju managed to go one better than her rival. She kissed the king and the cup.

Comments