Henin-Hardenne Has Tools To Build Big-Match Success
Henin-Hardenne Has Tools To Build Big-Match Success
By Richard Pagliaro, Tennis Week Writer
In the constellation of shining stars that is the WTA Tour's top 10,
Justine Henin-Hardenne is often overshadowed by larger lights. Based on her performance last weekend, Henin-Hardenne may be eager to enact an eclipse.
Radiating resolve during the draining Dubai Duty Free Open final, the
Belgian's brilliance on big points saw her extinguish a match point to
edge Monica Seles 4-6, 7-6, 7-5 and capture her seventh career
The victory came a day after Henin-Hardenne outlasted third-seeded Jennifer Capriati 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 in a two-hour, 25-minute baseline battle.
A day after her grueling duel with Capriati, the slender Belgian beat
another big-hitter in Seles. The match spanned two hours and 45 minutes and showed the staying power of Henin-Hardenne, who overcame 12 double faults and heavy hitting from Seles in winning her first tournament title since October.
"It was an unbelievable match," Henin-Hardenne said. "Physically it was hard for me at the end of the first set, beginning of the second. I was tired from yesterday and it was hard for me to play the game I like to play. At the second set, when I had to because I had a match point against me, I played good tennis. Then it was a great third set. On the important points I played well."
In the past, important points provoked inopportune lapses in judgment from the 2001 Wimbledon finalist. Henin-Hardenne fans are all too familiar with the mental meltdowns that enable victory to elude her. At the 2001 French Open, Henin-Hardenne held a 6-2, 4-2 lead over compatriot Kim Clijsters and was poinys away from securing a spot in her first Grand Slam final only to lose the lead and the match.
Last year, Henin-Hardenne was blowing away Venus Williams 6-2, 4-0, 40-15 in the Amelia Island final and was two points from victory three times before blowing the match 2-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5). As if that excruciating end wasn't enough to endure, the defending champion at 's-Hertogenbosch earned six match points in the semifinal against Eleni Daniilidou before dissolving in defeat.
If you're noticing a trend here so were opponents and critics, who began to believe that if you hung around long enough in a match against Henin-Hardenne eventually she'd start succumbing to self doubt and that old familiar fear of losing might prevent her from winning.
Small in stature at 5-foot-5 3/4, Henin-Hardenne was labeled as a player who couldn't win the big match. It is a tag she's tried shirking off her slender shoulders during the past year with a series of significant wins over Grand Slam champions. Last spring, Henin-Hardenne beat Serena Williams in a third-set tiebreaker to take the German Open. Last month, she revised recent history in a marathon match against Lindsay Davenport that saw Henin-Hardenne survive a painful case of cramps, a 1-4 final-set deficit and Davenport's history of dominance against her in scoring a 7-5, 5-7, 9-7 triumph.
That extraordinary effort prompted Hall of Famer John McEnroe, who was broadcasting for Australian television, to gush: "That match had everything: suspense, great play and high drama. And how I love that girl Justine Henin."
Henin-Hardenne has earned fans for her no-nonsense approach and an elegantly exquisite style of play. At a time when some WTA Tour players are marketed as if they were pop stars, Henin-Hardenne is more concerned with being a player than a personality and is more J. Crew than J. Lo.
You won't see Henin-Hardenne modeling swimsuits, creating a calendar or hanging out with TV sitcom stars. Whether her decided disinterest with the entertainment aspect of athletics makes her more mundane or adds to her appeal as a player purely devoted to her profession depends solely on your point of view.
But while Henin-Hardenne may lack glitz off court her game is glaringly glamorous with a beautiful one-handed backhand that is the tennis equivalent of a Swiss army knife: a multi-purpose tool she can slice, spin or simply use to dissect the court. She packs potent power for her size, owns a surprisingly strong serve, is a capable volleyer and covers the court quickly. She has the vast variety in her game that can create problems for the baseline blasters by alternating the spins and speeds on her shots and playing sharp angles to open up the court.
In short, Henin-Hardenne owns a toolbox of talent, but has suffered
from poor shot selection at times along with an inexplicable insistence on trying to out power tennis' hardest hitters who own an immense size and strength advantage over her. It is the equivalent of trying to use a sledgehammer to deconstruct a chandelier. With wins over three former No. 1 players - Davenport, Capriati and Seles - in the first two months of the season, the undersized Belgian refused to be overwhelmed. The player once overshadowed by the game's luminous leaders is starting to see the light which makes the Belgian's future bright.
She’s shown she can pose problems for both sisters when playing well, but her biggest problem in those meetings remains her inexplicable insistence on trying to out power two of tennis’ hardest hitters. Considering Serena and Venus return each other’s serves so well, what makes Henin-Hardenne believe that she pound service winners past them? Rather than resorting to a strong-arm game she can’t win, Henin-Hardenne would be better served striving to play with more variety and alter pace and placement on her serve and strokes.
As Patty Schnyder and Chanda Rubin both showed in their victories over Serena last year, the ability to alter spins on your shots is vital to any shot of success against Serena. Similarly, Emilie Loit pushed the top seed to three sets at the Australian Open by snapping slick slice backhands followed by high topspin forehands that prevented Williams from gaining consistent rhythm.
Though the possible permutations of continuing clashes between the sisters who share the same home and the teenagers from the same homeland are intriguing, for now Venus and Serena have all the answers.