Justine Henin-Hardenne looks a lot taller these days. The official stats still read 5ft 1in, but something in her demeanour has changed. Her recent marriage to her childhood sweetheart Yves Hardenne has certainly played its part, but the transformation is due mainly to her triumph at the French Open earlier this month. "I can honestly say that was the turning point for me," she says.
In many ways, Paris was the Belgian's Waterloo. Continuously unfancied and underrated because of her small frame, she proved that she could mix it with the brutes of the game. Her two-set demolition of her compatriot Kim Clijsters handed her the title, but it was during the semi-final against the seemingly unbeatable Serena Williams that Henin-Hardenne came of age. "The final win was obviously the greatest achievement of my career," she says proudly, "but I think the semi-final was my best performance from a technical point of view. The tennis that day was of an incredibly high level. It can sometimes be difficult to appreciate a match when you're in it, but I knew that was a cracker."
Henin-Hardenne is not one to blow her own trumpet, but she knows just how important that defeat of Williams Jnr was. "It proved that mental strength can be just as important as the physical side," says the player who has been working on that aspect of her game with her long-time coach, Carlos Rodriguez. "Serena is a great champion on every surface and it's really difficult to get the better of her, so that win was crucial for me, but also the women's game. It proved that even the Williams sisters can be beaten."
Henin-Hardenne acknowledges that the slower clay courts helped her in Paris, but insists that the manner of her victory proves she could repeat the feat on grass. "What I am particularly proud of," she says, "is the fact that I went looking for the win. I didn't just sit back and wait for her to make mistakes; I really fought by playing an attacking game. That augurs well for Wimbledon."
So, too, does her victory in the maiden all-Belgian Grand Slam final. "Getting the first Major title under my belt is crucial because I have cleared a massive psychological barrier," the 21-year-old explains. "I know now that, no matter what anybody might think or say about me, I am good enough to be one of the very best players in the world."
Henin is referring to the one-time suggestions that her lack of height and strength would prevent her from ever making an impact at the highest level. Most felt that, despite her classic back-hand, success in the modern game demanded raw power. "It's funny," she points out, "because even after my appearance in the Wimbledon final two years ago, a lot of people still didn't believe in me. I think they wanted me to go all the way before they took note. Well, now I've done it, and hopefully people will look at me differently. One thing for sure is that no one can ever take that title away from me. The French Open was my reward for lots of years of hard work."
The victory was all the sweeter because Henin has had a difficult upbringing. Her mother passed away when she was just 12, leaving her to earn for the family from a young age. "The life I've had has made me stronger, but also very aware of the good things around me," says Henin, who dedicated her Roland Garros title to her mother's memory. "That's why I'll continue to keep my feet on the ground. I'm not going to sit on my laurels. What I want now is to do even better and win the Grand Slam [all four Major titles in one season] one day. But before that, I first have to win another Slam."
At Wimbledon? "Why not?" she says confidently, despite having to withdraw from yesterday's Ordina Open final against Clijsters due to a wrist injury after slipping on court - she does not regard it as a problem. "I've done well on grass before, and I've been playing some of my best tennis in the first six months of this year. What's important is for me to continue that way and not think about anything else. Sure, there will be pressure and expectation, but that is what you become a tennis player for. Wimbledon is a big tournament, and with that come big demands, but also big rewards. I'm looking forward to it."
Repeating her Paris feat in London will not be easy, but Henin-Hardenne thinks she has found the perfect routine. "Very little sleep," she jokes. "The night before the final at Roland Garros, I barely slept a wink. I just lay there tossing and turning, and Yves made things even worse by coughing all night. Not surprisingly, I felt really tired in the morning and I was worried before the final. But it worked out rather well in the end, so perhaps I'll stay awake in a couple of Saturdays' time."