Ponytailed assassin seizes prize

Henin-Hardenne warms up for SW19 by taking crown in tie-break thriller
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That old brain-teaser about naming 10 famous Belgians gets a little easier around this time of the year thanks to Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters. Britain's interest in the Hastings Direct Championships lasted all of about half an hour at the beginning of the week, which is par for the course, but what the LTA are at a loss to explain is why a country like Belgium, good at making beer and chocolate, should produce two world-class players while good old Blighty can't find one.

In the form of Wimbledon, which is a licence to print money, GB hold the cards but can't deliver a single ace. On Friday, Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters (they may be from the same country but they don't break bread together) fought out an interesting semi-final here which went to the former 6-3 5-7 6-1. Yesterday Henin-Hardenne had an even closer contest against the Russian Anastasia Myskina before taking the final 4-6 6-1 7-6. After two hours of high-octane tennis on a glorious day on the south coast it could hardly have been closer, the Belgian winning the tie-break climax 7-5 with a searing forehand winner, one of her trademark weapons.

This was some performance, some match between two 24-year-olds who are fearless, uninhibited and who give the ball an almighty thump. Both girls can serve faster than 100mph but it was the quality and speed of their rallies that raised the temperature and what is clear is that nobody will want to meet either of them at Wimbledon.

"If you want something it's going to happen," Myskina said. "I feel pretty good and I'm really hungry to win again. I showed that I can compete with anybody." The Muscovite won the French Open in 2004 but is perhaps best known for posing, for a men's magazine, naked on a horse and it was not in Coventry.

In appearance, if not in power-hitting, the finalists could hardly be more different: Myskina, tall, dark, slender; Henin-Hardenne shorter, plainer and a bit of a paleface beneath the peaked cap, but she's a pony-tailed assassin. Fresh from winning the French Open on the red clay of Paris, her fifth Grand Slam title, she was competing here for the first time. "I'd heard so many good things about Eastbourne," she said of a town renowned for putting the sedate into sedative, but not for the week before Wimbledon. "Pow, Smash, Whack!" yell the tournament banners and the final lived up to every word.

Henin-Hardenne opened up a 3-1 lead in the first set, breaking serve in the third game when the Russian was 40-love, but was then herself broken to love in the eighth game and again in the 10th, losing the set in 42 minutes.

"At the beginning of the second set I completely changed tactics and decided to go forward more," Henin-Hardenne said. It was a breeze compared to the first and she took it 6-1 in 20 minutes to level the match. There was even a glimpse of serve and volley and the odd drop shot between two girls whose natural instinct is to trade blow for violent blow from the baseline. A sign that Myskina was not going to roll over came in the first game of the decider when she unleashed some blinding forehand winners and her piledriver double-fisted backhand for a service break. However, she could not exploit it as the cry of "Allez!" from her opponent began to drown out the noise of the seagulls.

The cream had risen to the top at the Devonshire club and Myskina saved three match points at 4-5 and another in the tie break before the favourite prevailed. Henin-Hardenne won $95,500 (£52,500) to become the fastest player in tour history to earn $2m in a single season. She has now won more matches than any other player this year and it's still only June. She is the No 3 seed at Wimbledon, where the absentees include Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce, and she may never get a better chance at a tournament in which she has twice been a semi-finalist.

Henin-Hardenne, though, would not want to meet Myskina again in a hurry. "She never gives up, she's a real fighter and it was a very intense affair," the Belgian said. "It was the best possible preparation for Wimbledon."