Henin clear No. 1 as Serena, Venus chasing
With five weeks left in the season, the WTA's top 10 competitors are madly scrambling to see if anyone can put a dent in top-ranked Justine Henin's steely confidence.
After all, in winning her second major of the year at the U.S. Open by scalding both Williams sisters and Svetlana Kuznetsova, there is little reason Henin won't walk away with Player of the Year honors.
"I saw her in the locker room just after she won the Open and she told me that was the best she ever played at a Grand Slam, and if someone who is that humble is saying that, you know it was," tour veteran Rennae Stubbs told FOXSports.com.
"There were no downs. She goes out on the practice court and from the first to the last ball she strikes it as if there's a purpose to everything she does. I was around (former No. 1) Steffi Graf a lot and it was the exact same thing. It's never going through the motions. I've never see Justine just go out there and tool around; she gets ready mentally and with her game plan."
But there are plenty of contenders who could at least put a few doubts into Henin's savvy head by stopping her charge the next few weeks in significant tournaments such as Stuttgart and Zurich, and then preventing her from winning the season finale at the Sony Ericsson WTA Championships, from Nov. 6-11 in Madrid.
But Henin is riding a 14-match winning streak heading into her Stuttgart quarterfinal match against Elena Dementieva and is feeling fresh as a daisy.
"She's the epitome of a pro, it's the best way to describe her," Stubbs said. "Beating Serena and Venus back-to-back at the Open, two of the best players of the last 10 years, is quite the feat."
In a heavy dose of good news for the tour, both Venus and Serena have decided to seriously commit to fall schedules this year, the first time they've both performed the autumn grind since the beginning of the century. They both want further shots at Henin and know that if they allow the Belgian to run away with 2007, it will be very difficult to stop her from taking over the mantle of the greatest player of their generation in 2008.
This week, Serena is competing in Stuttgart and should she reach the final — which wont be easy considering she'll face Kuznetsova in the quarters and possibly an in-form Tatiana Golovin in the semis — she might get another shot at Henin, who has beaten Serena in three successive Grand Slams, all in the quarterfinals.
Serena has rarely been in this position before — clearly looking up at another elite player — and knows she'll have to be super fit and motivated if she is to get on top of her rival again.
Venus is competing in Tokyo, a lesser-grade tournament that she's favored to win by a significant margin. Last week, she won a title in Korea and seems as a happy as she's ever been, happily blogging away about relationships, interior design and clothing choices. Even though she lost a tough two-setter to Henin in the U.S. Open semifinals, she's won 18 of her last 20 matches and for the first time since 2002, she's been able to play nine months straight without falling prey to a serious injury.
"If Serena plays Justine in Stuttgart, it will be a good test because she'll be fitter than she was at the Open when she was just coming off the thumb injury," said Stubbs, who is still hoping to qualify for Madrid with her doubles partner, Kveta Peschke.
"It will be a good indication of how Serena is looking at the end of the year. Venus is battling it out in Asia against lower ranked players, but that's usually where she struggles. She usually comes out better mentally at big tournaments. It's interesting to see them both really trying to put a stamp on the end of the year to say, 'What a great year, Justine, but we both won a Grad Slam this year and we are here to stay.' It's great for the game that they are willing to get out there with no distractions."
It will likely be either Venus or Serena who stops Henin, as the Belgian owns Kuznetsova and third-ranked Jelena Jankovic. Fourth-ranked Maria Sharapova has been out since the U.S. Open, nursing her chronically injured right shoulder and will attempt to play Moscow next week. But it's unlikely she'll heal quickly enough to become a major factor by the time Madrid rolls around. A sterling performance there would go a long way in salvaging what has been Sharapova's worst year since 2003, but it's likely she'll have to wait until the Australian Open to be able to bring out her best stuff again.
"The shoulder has been a huge problem," Stubbs said. "The bottom line is that if Maria isn't serving well, she's isn't playing well. When she won the U.S. Open last year she served people off the court. It allows her to be more free and be more aggressive. She's going to have to get her shoulder 100 percent so she can serve bombs and do it consistently."
Stubbs thinks that both the enigmatic Kuznetsova and colorful Jankovic have to convince themselves they have the capability of beating Henin even when the Belgian is playing well.
"Jelena has to decide in the big matches if she really wants it. She's loves the attention, is a great personality and is an unbelievable player, but there's a difference between being really good and really wanting it. That's the difference between Henin and Jankovic in mentality. She's still young, but she has to show everyone that she really wants it. The same with Sveta. She can't go in with negativity. But some people are born with it and some aren't, which is why we have had so few No. 1s."
Two other young players should qualify for the Championships — Serbian sensation Ana Ivanovic and the intelligent-but-emotionally-put-upon Russian, Anna Chakvetadze. Both would love to prove they are ready to knock out the elite at the big events, but as powerful and talented as she is, Ivanovic dropped down a level against Henin at the French Open and against Venus at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and appears to need a bit more seasoning. Ivanovic won at Luxembourg last week, but was unable to sustain her form in Stuttgart, taking a shocking loss to the underwhelming Kateryna Bondarenko on Thursday.
"She has really good weeks and then lets down," Stubbs said. "She has some kinks in her game. Her serve will go and her mobility is good but not great. These types of players who hit the ball so well, what people don't often realize is they have to be on all the time to win because they don't have the little nuances in their game like Henin does, who can move, slice, serve and volley if she needs to."
The inventive Chakvetadze, who has had one of the most impressive rises over the past year, completely melted down in her U.S. Open semifinal loss to Kuznetsova and has yet to recover, suffering a loss to Golovin in Stuttgart.
The ultra-perfectionist looks like she needs a mental and physically break immediately, but won't get it and will be under heavy pressure to defend her home country title in Moscow next week.
"She's solid but doesn't have huge weapons," Stubbs said. "She uses the pace of the other players against them, so she has to rely on them playing well so she can feel like she's hitting the ball well. Mentally, she's not that strong. Sometimes she's a wall and other times she's almost in tears. But not everyone can be great. She'll be around for a long time, but there's nothing in her game that's going to make her No. 1 or win numerous Grand Slams."
It looks like it's Henin's season to close, and it's up to the Williams sisters and possibly to Ivanovic to stick their feet in the door.
But, as Stubbs said, Henin is the benchmark.
"There are 20 players who can hit the ball well off both sides, but who don't move that well. Then you have the two No. 1s in the world, Henin and Roger Federer, both who have one-handed backhands and have the nuances in their games where they can get balls back, make players play more, come in and add a little variety. You have to do that if you want to do very well these days."