Australian Open Review: Terminator Justine Fulfills Mission (come in it took a while)
Terminator Justine fulfils Mission
In claiming her third Grand Slam win in four events, Petite Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne continued her supremacy over compatriot Kim Clijsters and completed a journey begun twelve months ago.
It was on Rod Laver Arena a year ago that Justine Henin-Hardenne played two matches that changed her career. The first, an epic Round of 16 victory over 2000 Australian Open Champion Lindsay Davenport, whom she had never before beaten in five tries, by her own admission was the impetus that enabled her to believe that, in time, she could challenge the best players on Hard Courts. In a see sawing battle, Henin-Hardenne sacrificed a set and 4-1 lead, before pulling back from a 1-4 deficit in the third to triumph 9-7 while fighting leg cramps. Before that match Henin-Hardenne was known as talented yet mentally fragile player without the physical presence to intimidate those at the top – at the time, the Williams Sisters, Jennifer Capriati and even her fellow Belgian Clijsters, whom she had lost three straight meetings to without winning a set. If that win gave Henin-Hardenne the belief that she could be the best, then she was given a brutal reality check as to the physical demands of getting there after being routed in straight sets by Venus Williams in the semi finals. Says Henin-Hardenne’s long time coach Carlos Rodriguez; “"When she lost to Venus Williams without a fight in Melbourne, we talked about it and I asked her to decide: did she want to fight and be a champion, or did she want to be a good player, who's No.5 in the world, with a good life and a lot of money…I said, 'which do you want?"'. Twelve Months on, the choice Henin-Hardenne made then is manifest in her results. Her 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Clijsters at Melbourne Park rounded out a stunning Grand Slam year in which she claimed her maiden major title at Roland Garros, followed up with her breakthrough on hard courts at Flushing Meadows, ended the year at number one and, perhaps most importantly, turned the tables on many of the rivals considered too strong for her a year ago. She has now won five of her last seven encounters with Clijsters (including the French, US and Australian Open Finals), and won two of her three encounters with Serena Williams in 2003.
These days Henin-Hardenne, the slightest number one in WTA history at just 167 cm tall, is more terminator than waif. She has beefed up considerably and made adjustments to her serve to gain extra mileage. However the most important transformation has been mental. Little Justine now believes she is the best and so she is. Sure, she can play every shot in the book, find extraordinary angles, drop shot deftly, hit with topspin and slice on a backhand that John McEnroe considers the best shot on either tour, and cover the court with phenomenal speed. However, Henin-Hardenne’s success has come just as much from her development into the toughest competitor on tour as to her physical talents. For most of the championships, Henin-Hardenne didn’t even approach the kind of form that propelled her to her Roland Garros title, however she reached the final without dropping a set and when challenged by Clijsters in the final she plumbed the depths of her considerable self belief to pull out the points that mattered. Roving the baseline with remorseless determination over the fortnight, the manner in which tungsten tough Henin-Hardenne eased out of a crisis was reminiscent of the terminator himself.
Never was Henin-Hardenne’s resilience more evident than in her quarterfinal rematch with Davenport. The two had not been pitted against each other since their epic Melbourne Park encounter last season, and the feeling was that Henin-Hardenne, in poor form throughout the first week, was vulnerable against a rejuvenated Davenport who had played some of her best tennis in recent years after returning from foot surgery in October. This prediction seemed credible when the American won the first four games in double quick time by executing on full-blooded flat drives into the corners that left even fleet footed Justine with no answer. Henin-Hardenne seemed totally outgunned by a woman seven years her senior and 22 cm taller. And who could blame her, the laws of physics gave Davenport a decided advantage. However Justine does not believe in the impossible these days. Like the terminator withstanding gunfire only to pick himself up again to ultimately crush his opponent, Henin-Hardenne received the early blows as a challenge, picked herself up and began getting the ball deeper, began anticipating better and running enough balls down to exploit Davenport’s suspect movement. Davenport buckled under Henin’s relentless determination and her terminator like resilience and after blowing three set points lost the first set 7-5. In the second set, Henin-Hardenne, who to the naked eye resembles a bantamweight fighting out of her class, began to boss the rallies against her heavy weight opponent. In a 7-5 6-3 victory, she ended up striking 29 winners to her opponents 23, flouting the orthodoxy that a player of her size is more or less confined to life as a counter puncher against the game’s amazons. “Asta La Vista, baby”, indeed!
The final against Clijsters was dramatic, if not the high quality classic one might have hoped for. At least it went to three sets, which was a rarity in what became a fairly mundane women’s tournament after the withdrawals of Capriati and Serena Williams, the early exit of Venus and the injury induced departure of a tearful Amelie Mauresmo. Henin-Hardenne applied the pressure from the outset, breaking Clijsters, who had been under an injury cloud throughout the tournament after injuring her ankle during the Hopman Cup, in the fifth game and again in the final game of the set for a comfortable 6-3 opening. Henin-Hardenne looked to be cruising to her third Grand Slam title after taking a 4-2 lead in the second set, but it was at this point that “Aussie Kim”, fresh off engagement to Lleyton Hewitt, decided to assert the game that had once carried her to a dominant 7-2 head to head over Henin-Hardenne and turned in a fighting performance her fiancé would have been proud of. She reeled off the next four games to level the match. At this point the old Justine may have crumbled, especially after surrendering a two break lead in the final set to find herself back on serve, but buoyed by her confidence boosting year in which she won eighty percent of the three set matches she contested, the terminator Justine was never going to be beaten. After Clijsters wasted two chances to level the final set at 4-4 with double faults, Henin-Hardenne broke after a controversial line call and served out the match.
For Clijsters the loss was yet another confidence sapping defeat to a player whom this time last year was widely considered her inferior. Before the final Clijsters insisted that her finals defeats at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows were not psychological, and after this latest defeat it may well just be that Henin-Hardenne has surpassed her not only mentally but also game wise. The trouble for Clijsters at the moment is that she makes too many errors at inopportune times; when she should be dour she is flamboyant. Although the fact that she was not 100% physically may have preyed on her mind, she must toughen up mentally if she is going to shed her slamless tag. If reports after the final that Clijsters may only play until 2007 and thus only has 15 Grand Slam Tournaments in which to break her duck are true, then Clijsters must hone her mental game quickly if she does not wish to retire with the dubious honour of “best player never to win a major”.
For Henin-Hardenne, the challenges are now of an entirely different nature. After becoming only one of nine women to hold three majors concurrently, it may seem that Justine has little left to prove. The truth is, that she still does. Rightly or wrongly, the benchmark in women’s tennis remains Serena Williams, who has not played since winning Wimbledon (after routing Henin-Hardenne in the semifinals), but who prior to that had won five of the previous six Grand Slam tournaments (her one loss being to Henin-Hardenne in Paris). In her absence, Henin Hardenne has assumed her vacated throne but on surfaces other than clay she has yet to demonstrate the ability to consistently challenge either Williams Sister. These facts and the goal of completing her Grand Slam set with victory at Wimbledon, will drive Henin-Hardenne. With her recent tunnel vision and mental steel at the majors, there look to be some great battles ahead when Serena finally returns.
The Russian Revolution in women’s tennis has been one of the sporting success stories of the early 21st Century. Going into the Australian Open, the Russian brigade had ten women in the world’s top 50, 8 of which were seeded among the top 32. Yes, the Russian ranks have grown considerably in both depth and talent since Anna Kournikova pioneered this generation back in the mid nineties. However during the fortnight, the Russians seemed to gain more attention for their wildly fluctuating moods than for their sweet ground stroking.
One of only two Russians to venture as far as the Round of 16, 11th Seed Vera Zvonareva, who had upset Venus Williams to reach last year’s Roland Garros quarterfinals, was not afraid to become emotional on court. In her third round encounter with Aussie Nicole Pratt, who had reached the last 32 on the back of a sensational first round win over 17th seed Meghann Shaughnessy, Zvonareva, frustrated by her own patchy play as well as her opponent’s dogged retrieving, frequently buried her head in a towel during change of ends and appeared close to tears. She kept her head long enough to record a 7-5 2-6 6-1 victory, but it was a different story against Davenport whose relentless driving provided an entirely different challenge to the one presented by Pratt. Despite the fact that she had pushed Davenport to a 7-5 third set in Sydney, Zvonareva was unable to string consecutive points together as she became increasingly despondent in a 6-1, 6-3 rout.
Russia’s top ranked player, 6th Seed Anastasia Myskina survived a see sawing 6-4 2-6 6-1 battle against her rising country woman, 16-year-old bombshell Maria Sharapova to set up a 4th Round rematch with classy American Chanda Rubin, whom she had beaten to reach the quarterfinals last year. The Muscovite caused a sensation during her 6-7 6-2 6-2 win with her tendency to turn to her coach at tense moments during the match, and demonstratively vent her frustration, as if he could somehow ease her out of the crisis. She explained after that; “He's kind of like a wall there, that he has to show me something, show some emotions to me. He has to give me something back”. Her quarterfinal with Clijsters, who had cruised through the first four rounds despite her injury cloud, was high drama. Having sprayed too many of her fierce flat drives out of court in conceding the first set 6-2, the match took an unexpected twist when Clijsters appeared to re-injure her troublesome ankle early in the second set. Myskina skipped away to a 4-0 lead, but after Clijsters took an injury time out at 1-4, Myskina’s control of the match wavered. Although she held two set points at 5-3, Clijsters, relatively unrestricted in her movement, was able to level the score at 5-5. In a climactic tiebreak, Myskina saved match points and Clijsters set points before Myskina made one unforced error to many to concede the tiebreak and the match 6-2 7-6 (7).
“I'm pretty much in shock. I still can't believe it” were Venus Williams words after her surprising 6-4 7-6 (5) third round defeat against American Veteran Lisa Raymond –the upset of the championships, men’s draw included. In retrospect, perhaps it should not have been such a shock. Despite reaching the final last year, Williams has never played particularly well in Melbourne, and having not played a tour match since losing the Wimbledon final to her sister, she was severely lacking in match play. Once again it was poor preparation that ultimately cost Williams her Australian Open dream. She appears to have not yet learnt the lessons of the past by choosing only to play a Hong Kong exhibition instead of undertaking a tournament schedule in Australia. Raymond, the 25th seed, played a smart tactical match, exploiting Williams’ rustiness by hanging in rallies with her from the baseline and taking the opportunity to utilise the net skills that have brought her 42 career doubles titles. She was naturally delighted with her victory; “To go out there against a top player and to, you know, start off well and to finish well. To maintain a high level of play the way I did today, you know, feels great.”
The exit of Williams, combined with the second round departure of 8th seed Ai Sugiyama, provided the opportunity for a surprise semi-finalist from the third quarter of the draw. It was Raymond and talented Swiss left-hander Patty Schnyder who advanced to a quarterfinal meeting. In four previous matches, Schnyder had employed her vicious spin and wicked angles to foil Raymond’s net rushing game and the quarterfinal was no different. After affecting the first break of the match to lead 6-5, Raymond wasted her opportunity to serve out the set by failing to play with the same audacity that had brought Williams undone. After Raymond meekly conceded the first set tiebreak, Schnyder was always in control to advance to her first Grand Slam semifinal 7-6 (2) 6-3. It was a welcome return to the later rounds of Grand Slam play for Schnyder who has had her trials since reaching the quartefinals of the French and US Open’s in 1998. Seemingly more settled since her recent marriage, Schnyder squandered her own chances in the second set against Clijsters before going down 6-3 7-6.
THE MOST TRAGIC EXIT
Strapping No.3 seed Amelie Mauresmo, the 1999 finalist, was playing better tennis than anyone during the first week of the championships. In her first three matches she conceded only six games, and looked the logical threat to the Belgian dominance. However cruelly, injury was to end her campaign. During the first set of a tense centre court duel with Australia’s own Alicia Molik, who had achieved a Grand Slam breakthrough of her own by making the fourth round at the expense of struggling 15th seed Daniela Hantuchova, Mauresmo tore a muscle in her back. Though she won the match 7-5 7-5 her campaign was fatally wounded. During a Tuesday morning practice session, Mauresmo was forced to come to grips with the fact her tournament was over. Leaving the court in tears, Mauresmo then had to front a press conference where she officially announced her withdrawal. It was the latest in a string of injury related disappointments for the talented Frenchwoman, who turns 25 this year. Approaching middle-age for a tennis player, Mauresmo may never achieved what looked like her destiny when she burst onto the scene five years ago – winning a major title.
Mauresmo’s withdrawal gave a free pass through to the semi-finals for Columbian Fabiola Zuluaga. Seeded 32nd, Zuluaga had never before past the 3rd round of a Grand Slam tournament, and had not had to face a seed to reach the quarterfinals. For her relative inexperience, Zuluaga equipped herself well in her daunting semifinal against Henin-Hardenne. It was much closer than a 6-2 6-2 scoreline reflected.
The appearance of Zuluaga and Schnyder in the semi-finals were only two of the surprises spawned by a depleted women’s draw. Russian seeds Dementieva, seeded seventh, and Petrova, tenth, fell within minutes of each other on the first day of the championships at the hands of former Australian Open Junior Champions. Dementieva, fresh off a year in which she finally won her first singles title and ended the year in the top ten, was out steadied by 18 yr old 2001 Junior Champion, Jelena Jankovic. Meanwhile Petrova, a French Open semifinalist, fell victim to 2000 champion Aniko Kapros, herself no stranger to upsets having beaten Henin-Hardenne at Roland Garros in 2002. While Jankovic lost her second round match, Kapros went all the way to the round of 16 before finding Zuluaga too tough.
Back-to-Back Australian Open Junior Champion, 17-year-old Barbora Strycova, meanwhile, after creating a big impact at the Hopman Cup, won three rounds of qualifying and her first round against Arantxa Parra before falling in three sets to yet another Russian, Lina Krasnoroutskaya, seeded 23rd. However the find of the championships was undoubtedly Russian born French girl Tatiana Golovin, who turned 16 during the championships. Golovin upset 14th seed Smashnova-Pistolesi, and then Krasnoroutskaya before falling to a red hot Raymond in the Round of 16.