World-beater Henin shows nous that can break Wimbledon curse

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The Independent Online

She entered Arthur Ashe Stadium for Saturday night's final at the US Open with the confidence of a woman who has done it all before. After a performance full of passion and panache she left to a standing ovation, her reputation as the best in the business reinforced. Yes, Carole King, who brought the pre-match entertainment to a rousing finale with "God Bless America", can still sing anyone off the stage.

Justine Henin did not do badly either. The 25-year-old Belgian beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-3 to win her second US Open and seventh Grand Slam title, underlining her status as the world No 1. Serena and Venus Williams, the champions from Melbourne and Wimbledon respectively, were the only other women who came to Flushing Meadows with any chance of being acclaimed as the player of 2007, but the French Open champion ended all debate by beating both sisters on her way to the final.

It has been an extraordinary year for Henin, who began it with her life in turmoil. Having cut herself off from her family some years earlier and moved away from her homeland to live in the anonymity of Monaco, she announced the break-up of her four-year marriage to Pierre-Yves Hardenne and pulled out of the Australian Open, saying that tennis was the last thing on her mind.

Nine months later, and now reconciled with her family, she was able to shrug off with a smile her introduction by an on-court TV interviewer here as "Justine Henin-Hardenne".

After losing only four matches all year and winning titles at Roland Garros, New York, Dubai, Doha, Warsaw, Eastbourne and Toronto, the only significant blemish on Henin's 2007 record remains her bizarre collapse against Marion Bartoli in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, which is the only jewel missing from her Grand Slam crown. Nevertheless, in reaching two finals and three semi-finals at the All England Club and winning titles at Eastbourne and 's-Hertogenbosch, the Belgian has regularly proved that she can conquer grass and it would be a big surprise if she does not lift the Venus Rosewater Dish before her career is done.

"Am I going to win Wimbledon one day?" Henin said here on Saturday night. "I have no answer. I'm in a little more trouble on grass than I am on hard courts. I'm the kind of girl who needs some rhythm to play good tennis. I don't find it as easily on grass, but I keep thinking I can do it."

Perhaps Henin should take into next year's Wimbledon the memory of her winning point here, when, not for the first time, she surprised Kuznetsova by playing serve-and-volley.

Throughout her career Henin has had to fight against a basic instinct to stay on the baseline, but her net play has so improved that she now moves forward with confidence. Her stop-volleys, in particular, show a sureness of touch that Carlos Rodriguez, her coach, has always known she could display on court. Rodriguez, who has worked with Henin since she was 14, has been a rock throughout her private difficulties and was the first person she sought to celebrate her victory. "He gave me unbelievable support and never judged anything. He and his family were just there for me," Henin said. "Carlos has been the only one who told me every day: 'You can do it. You can be the No 1 player in the world'. Not a lot of people thought I could win this US Open with the draw I had, but I did it."

At just 5ft 5in and 9st, Henin is one of the smallest players in the women's game. Having overtrained in the past and had a lengthy period out with cytomegalovirus, she has benefited from changes to her fitness and nutritional regimes. "I work in a more functional way," she said. "I'm not injured any more. I'm feeling much better. I'm feeling strong. I changed my nutrition a lot in the last year and that changed a lot of things in my preparation.

"Little details make a big difference. I'm really proud of the fact that I can compete and be the best player in the world despite not being that tall."

Kuznetsova, whose 2004 win here remains her only Grand Slam title, was outplayed throughout a disappointingly one-sided final and never recovered after losing the first four games. She made too many mistakes and was unable to take advantage even when Henin became nervous towards the end, with three double-faults in her final service game.

Although the 22-year-old Russian has big groundstrokes, her game lacks subtlety and variety. She will be named world No 2 when an updated rankings list is published today, which is evidence of her consistency and spirit, but the reality is that there is a significant gap at the top of women's tennis beneath Henin, who did not drop a set here or in her previous tournament in Toronto.

The Williams sisters may continue to catch fire when the occasion suits them, but Amélie Mauresmo and Martina Hingis could be spent forces, Kim Clijsters has retired and the likes of Anna Chakvetadze and Nicole Vaidisova have yet to prove they have what it takes to succeed at the very highest level.

The smiling Serbs, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, provide significant rays of hope for the years ahead, but the greatest need in the women's game is for Maria Sharapova, its brightest light, to recover fully from the shoulder injury that has blighted her year and rediscover the form that saw her claim her second Grand Slam title here 12 months ago. Until she does, a diminutive Belgian is likely to look down on the rest of the world for some time yet.

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