Yuan feels searing heat of Belgian powerhouse

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The Independent Online

China may be planning to dominate women's tennis in the next few years, but one of their leading performers was forced to acknowledge the current pre-eminence of another, smaller country here yesterday: Belgium.

Given that it provides these championships with the second and third seeds in the form of Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, the home of the European Commission can justly claim to be a tennis superpower. And both its top performers sustained their high-profiles yesterday as Clijsters finished off her match against Russia's Vera Zvonareva, winning 7-5, 6-3, and Henin-Hardenne reduced the unseeded Yuan Meng - one of six Chinese women in the main draw - to an increasingly forlorn figure as the ball travelled past her on either side, relentlessly, in the course of a 6-0, 6-1 defeat.

The pattern of Henin-Hardenne's match became clear immediately - rallies like escalating arguments, with the Belgian almost always getting in the last word. At 5-0 and 40-15 up, Henin-Hardenne produced a little wobble that might have persuaded the Chinese girl that there was a glimmer of hope as she double-faulted on successive points. But then a dismissive overhead shot created advantage, and the set was polished off in a total of 28 minutes thanks to another unanswerable backhand.

At 4-0 down in the second, the Chinese girl, now gasping with the effort of attempting to stem the flow of winners, produced a flourishing backhand down the line and then a big serve which earned her her first game, and sustained applause from the faintly relieved spectators.

But it proved to be the unseeded player's only tangible reward as Henin-Hardenne resumed her steady course. As she stood at 15-0 up in her service game there was the loud sound from somewhere in the crowd of a bottle being relieved of its cork. Celebrations were premature - but only just, as the Belgian won her serve and then broke Yuan once again to conclude matters in four minutes under an hour.

Despite the overwhelming manner of her victory, Henin-Hardenne refused to get even remotely carried away afterwards. "That's the kind of match you need in your first rounds," said the woman who retained her French Open title earlier this year and warmed up for Wimbledon by winning the Eastbourne title. "But I know how hard it is to go to the end of a Grand Slam. You have to build it day after day. That's it. You don't have to look too far - it will be a big mistake."

Asked to pick who might win here, she added: "It's wide open," pointing out that last year saw four different Grand Slam winners, and this year has already produced two more.

Henin-Hardenne admitted that she had been thankful for the rain that wiped out virtually all play on Monday, which enabled her to have an extra day of rest following her Eastbourne exertions. She certainly seemed a fully revitalised figure yesterday as she pounded the ball to all parts of the court.

That power, she is happy to acknowledge, proceeds from technique rather than bulk. "It's good to have different types of games," she said. "Women's tennis is getting very powerful in the last few years, so that's the way it is.

"But we prove, Martina Hingis and me, that we can play another game and still win. That's a pretty good sign. It means that the power, it's one thing, but it's not everything in the game, especially on grass. It's a question of how you are hitting the ball." Russia's Ekaterina Bychkova, next up on the Henin-Hardenne radar, has been warned. Much good may it do her.

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