'As for Maria, hitting hard, flat balls is no longer enough. She needs to add to her game, as the best of the rest have added, and are adding'
Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Dossier: Henin-Hardenne grits teeth to succeed as rivals serve up a treat
Coaching Report: In a battle of the Belgians, Clijsters was enjoying herself but for the victor it was almost a matter of life and death
Published: 07 July 2006
You never saw Justine Henin-Hardenne's teeth until the job was done. That's the essence for me of her two-sets semi-final victory over fellow Belgian, Kim Clijsters, yesterday, in what was a darn good match for the spectators. Both girls played good tennis, moving fine, hitting well, competing. There was real quality out there and it did the stage justice.
The difference in my view was Henin's spunk and determination. You never saw her teeth. She never opened her lips. That was the vast difference. It would have been instructive to take a picture of each girl's face every minute, and at the end line all the shots up and look along them.
On Henin's face there would be nothing, frame after frame. It was almost a trance, no sign of emotion. No little grin of "I'm doing a great job, you're doing a great job, what a show we're giving these good folks". Now look along the Clijsters shots. You see that? There's a little smile, just sometimes. And there's another. And there's the difference. One enjoyed it. For the other, it was a matter of life and death.
One point of interest where single-mindedness manifested itself was with Clijsters a break up in the second, at 3-2 and serving, and Henin had just won the point for 0-15. Then Henin coughed a little and, needing a drink, went to the net and got one. I genuinely have no idea whether this was gamesmanship, something conscious, deliberate. I really don't know, and actually this specific example is not the issue. The interesting thing is if you look back in history to times when players have done something like this - and lots have, and nobody did it better than Johnny Mac, all the time - you need to ask what position were they in right then? Were they down, or ahead?
I'm telling you it happens much more often when the answer is down, at just the time when a break in the opponent's momentum would be quite nice, thank you very much. So is it deliberate or instinctive, or neither? The facts are there, and I don't know in this case. You decide.
Back to Henin's focus, I believe it is just as likely to have been her focus rather than Clijsters' lack of it that caused Clijsters to falter slight at key times, like when she dropped her serve to love in the first set, and dropped it again when 6-5 ahead and serving in the second. Of course it could have been a choke - that's a possibility. But in a good match, I don't think so this time.
On the subject of choking, Amélie Mauresmo held herself together superbly, even after a wobble, to beat Maria Sharapova in three sets and earn herself her first Wimbledon final place after three semis in four years (and she missed the other year). She was excellent, not least mentally. As for Maria, hitting hard, flat balls is no longer enough. She needs to add to her game, as the best of the rest have added, and are adding.