Henin doubles up Williams sisters
All hail petite Belgian, who's a lock to notch her second U.S. Open title
Franka Bruns / AP
Justine Henin has shown through her play at the U.S. Open that despite her lack of height, she unquestionably towers over all the other players on the women's tour, writes Tracy Austin of MSNBC.com.
NEW YORK - Of course they play doubles at the U.S. Open -- just not the kind of doubles top-seeded Justine Henin
has played in the singles
draw at this major.
The brilliant Belgian, who stands just 5-foot-5, but who also stands alone at the top of the women's tour, wrapped up the 'Williams double" by beating Venus in straight sets (7-6, 6-4) in the semifinals on Friday, just three days after she defeated Venus' younger sister, Serena, in the quarterfinals, also doing so in straight sets.
Fans who witnessed the Venus-Henin match got a real treat to some top-notch tennis, and both players can be proud of the skills they put on display and the efforts they put forth. But for the Williams group of family and friends there was no upgrade in post-match emotions. The sting of disappointment stung even harder the second time around. First Serena gone and then Venus exits -- and all before the final weekend in Flushing Meadows. And, in contrast, for Henin, the smile only grew wider and the confidence just shot higher after these two message-sending wins.
Unless something goes seriously awry, come Saturday night Henin will win the second U.S. Open title of her career, the first coming in 2003. Fourth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova
, whose one major title came in the 2004 U.S. Open awaits Henin in the final, but with all due respect to the Russian any fan who closely follows this sport would bet just about anything that the semifinal tilt between Henin and Venus determined the woman who will hold high the championship trophy.
Tight match, but Venus' flaws exposed
There was definitely very little difference between Henin and Venus in their showdown. For the most part both played high-quality tennis, indeed the type of match worthy of a U.S. Open semifinal. But if there was something that broke down for Venus in her loss it would be the same old thing always talked about when the subject comes up over where Venus can become vulnerable. While it wasn’t very noticeable, the trouble she did get into was with her forehand -- the shot she tends to make errors on when she's in pressure situations.
Also hurting Venus' chances at victory was her second serve that just didn't have the pop it should. And another thing not good for Venus was that she started off slowly by losing her serve in the opening game, which meant that she was always playing catch up. Sound familiar? Playing catch up was just what Serena did in her match against Henin, and we all know how that worked out for little sister.
The Belgian bundle of brilliance got tight in the 10th game of the first set so instead of Henin being able to take advantage of three set points, Venus evened the score to 5-5. At 6-5, 30-30, Venus was just two points from closing out the set, but Henin held on to her serve and from there she raced through the tiebreaker and eventually to a 3-0 lead in the second set.
Venus had a big opportunity to change the momentum of the match when she pulled even at 3-3 in the second set. She had Henin at 0-40 in the seventh game. That was the point when Henin really solidified her supremacy in the match -- she held on to her serve for a 4-3 lead, broke Venus for a 5-3 lead, and the rest was history. Not the kind of history that will get a lot of ink in the Williams' family archives, but history that will be a blast for the ages in Belgium.
A key negative should not outweigh the positives
That Venus is going to come away from her loss to Henin disappointed is just a natural reaction. But she must not stay disappointed for too long. When Venus has had some time to really think about the defeat to the Belgian, she’ll see the overall positive in her year. She went into Wimbledon
barely being considered a factor and came out a champion -- doing so as the No. 23 seed, a feat never before accomplished. And since her win on the London lawns, Venus has -- for the most part -- been playing excellent tennis.
She’s 27, fit and healthy. She's in a strong position to play quality tennis not only for the remainder of this year, but also for years to come. If she's in top condition to start the 2008 season all things are possible for her as she'll possess a great deal of confidence and self belief .And I also have little doubt that when Venus brings herself to mentally step away from the loss to Henin, she'll recall how well she has played this year, and let it sink in that she has played some of the best tennis of her life.
Since Wimbledon Venus only played two Federation Cup matches in mid July, and four matches at a WTA Tour event in San Diego early this month. Even though Venus played little this summer, her coming off a title at Wimbledon worked in her favor at Flushing Meadows. Whenever a player wins a major there's a great boost of self confidence. Raising the championship trophy at a major has a carry-over effect.
Unlike at Wimbledon where Venus' first few matches saw her try to wind up her "A" game right from the first ball struck in each encounter only to instead appear at times susceptible to an upset due to her slow starts and sluggish play in the early going of those early England tests, at the U.S. Open she was sharp from the start and only getting sharper with each match. Her only problem: there was one sharper player in the draw, and by Venus' bad luck that player -- Henin -- was in her half of the draw.
Belgian has changed for the better
For Henin beating Venus was a significant victory since she hadn’t defeated the older Williams sister since their first-ever encounter at the German Open in 2001. From that point on the Belgian lost her next seven matches against the American, and was struggling to contend with Venus’ power game. But the most interesting thing is that at this U.S. Open these two were facing each other for the first time since the 2003 Australian Open
semifinal (won by Venus in straight sets) so in a very real way their history wasn’t a factor.
Henin is a very different player since the last time she and Venus collided. She’s now the No. 1 player in the world, and she has won all six of her majors after that 2003 Melbourne defeat to Venus. Being a six-times-over champion at the majors gives Henin a great amount of confidence, a confidence she just didn't have before achieving such success.
And Henin has come up with a winning approach to playing the Williams sisters. She is so willing to attack, so aggressive in her play. And by consistently employing this style she manages to keep Venus and Serena on the defensive for the most part. Henin also keeps the sisters on the run, steering them in one direction and then in another along the baseline until she finds an opening to launch her brilliant backhand or a well-placed forehand. She has got their number.
Henin is unlike her top American rivals in that she lives and breathes tennis while Serena and Venus have so many outside interests that their focus is not always where it needs to be as far as their tennis career is concerned. In all the years I’ve watched Henin play she has been the consummate professional. When Henin walks on the court, she stands tall despite being one of the shorter players in the game. She’s always in shape and ready to play. She's always ready to summon all she can from her game in order to win another title.
None better than Henin in the clutch
The opportunity to win a seventh career Grand Slam title was there for both Venus and Henin in this the year's final major (Serena is the leader among active players in majors won with eight), but now that opportunity exists only for Henin. It's the easy and wise thing to do to predict that the Belgian will have little trouble beating Kuznetsova in straight sets in Saturday night’s final. So I predict just that.
It’s hard to say that in doing so I'm going out on a shaky limb since Henin holds a dominating 14-2 record over Kuznetsova. Although the Russian won their last encounter on clay at Berlin this spring, that victory occurred in a very different arena and on a very different surface than what we find at the U.S. Open. Kuznetsova is a streaky player, and while she is capable of getting hot during a match, it would be extremely surprising if she could keep up a high level of play during a big-time match. Her nerves can cost her. They have in the past, and they likely will again in the future.
Henin has too much firepower and experience for Kuznetsova to contend with, especially when the Belgian puts her game into high gear in such a huge match. Henin is an all-around better player than her Russian counterpart. The one thing that Henin needs to be careful of is not getting caught up and distracted by her achievement of beating Serena and Venus at the same major. That's quite a feat -- done only once before and that by Martina Hingis
back in her prime.
While nothing is certain, knowing Henin she's not likely to fall in the look-what-I-have-done trap. To her it was tremendously rewarding to dispatch the Williams sisters in back-to-back matches. But she won't allow herself to linger on thoughts of that success. She knows winning the title is what it's all about.
It's been an emotional, up-and-down year for Henin. A divorce kept her from playing the Australian Open. Reuniting with her family after a seven-year break helped fuel her to a fourth French Open
title in the last five years. Now another U.S. Open title is within her grasp. It's one win away. She' been a one-woman wrecking crew these two weeks here, and who's to question that she's ready to take her demolition game at its full force against Kuznetsova and reduce to rubble the final challenger standing in the way of her winning this hard court major for a second time.