Sorry if this was posted before.
Steve Bierley at Flushing Meadows
Monday September 10, 2007
Billie Jean King, one of the greatest and most-respected names in women's sport, had no hesitation in describing Justine Henin as "pound for pound the best women's athlete I have ever seen".
The little Belgian had just won her second US Open title, and her seventh major in all, by beating Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-3 and not for the first time comparisons were drawn with Roger Federer. "Roger is Roger," said Henin, "he's unique. But I've been very consistent myself, that's for sure. I hope we can keep growing together at the same time."
This win placed Henin one grand-slam win behind Serena Williams, and one ahead of Venus Williams, and she became the first player to defeat both the sisters in the same major event and then go on to win the title. Previously Martina Hingis had beaten the two Americans in the 2001 Australian Open, only to lose to Jennifer Capriati in the final.
The Williams double was an achievement that gave Henin an extra frisson of pleasure, and indelibly underlined her position as the world No1, having also won the French Open title for the fourth time in May.
So much of Henin's life has been spent fighting adversity, both on and off the court. Her mother died when she was young, and then she became estranged from her father, a sister and her brother. She missed this year's Australian Open as her marriage broke down, only to be reunited with her family before Roland Garros.
Until recently she remained reluctant to draw a direct link between her private and public life, although during the highly charged semi-final against Venus Williams she gave vent to emotions that have normally remained hidden. And the night crowd in the Arthur Ashe stadium, who feed on such drama, loved it.
Carlos Rodriguez, her coach for 11 years whom she walked across to hug after her victory, has been urging Henin, essentially an extremely reserved character in public, to show more of her real self, her underlying personality, on the court. "I could feel a big difference this time in the States from when I first came," she said, "I think I am much more open and that people are really starting to get to know me a little bit better. I'm enjoy my game much more than in the past. I've grown up a lot this year, and against Venus I did show a lot of emotion."
There will perhaps always be contradictions in Henin's life. Rodriguez has had implicit belief in her ability, whereas she has leaned heavily on him and his family in times of adversity. But this does not mean they always see eye to eye. Both were immensely disappointed when, having beaten Serena Williams in the quarter-final of this year's Wimbledon, she then lost to Marion Bartoli of France in the semi-final.
"He has been hard with me but we have had perfect communication in this last two weeks, which is not the case all the time," said Henin, hinting at the underlying stresses and strains that are part and parcel of every player-coach relationship.
That said, the bond remains immensely strong, with Henin adding another dimension to her game this year by coming to the net much more frequently. She quickly took control of the final with Kuznetsova - the 2004 US Open champion and runner-up to Henin in Paris last year - who was unable to compete at the same level for any length of time, largely the direct consequence of nerves. Henin strutted around the court with a you're-not-supposed-to-beat-me confidence, and the 22-year-old Russian, three years younger than Henin, muttered repeated soliloquies of self-doubt. "I think the match was much closer than the score," she said. Not so.
There has not been a three-set women's final here since 1995, which is a little disappointing, and this one will be remembered principally for Henin's victory over the Williamses, together with the shock third-round defeat of the reigning champion, Maria Sharapova, by the 18-year-old Agnieszka Radwanska.
Other notable performances came from Shahar Peer, who became the first Israeli to reach the US Open quarter-finals, and Agnes Szavay, who achieved the same feat for Hungary, whereas yet another Russian, Anna Chakvetadze, made it through to her first grand slam semi-final at the age of 20. If Chakvetadze can acquire a little more power and become mentally stronger, she could become a significant force next year, for she has a good tennis brain.
At the height of their powers the Williams sisters still take some beating, with Serena winning the Australian Open this year and Venus taking a fourth Wimbledon title. Yet essentially their games have remained static, as has the progress of Sharapova.
Henin, by radically improving her forehand and moving to the net more, has achieved a new dynamic. Last year she reached all four grand slam finals, winning one. This year she has won two more. The only major title to elude her is Wimbledon, and it is not beyond her to add that over the coming years.