Henin-Hardenne Looks Forward To Life At The Top Nice Article
Henin-Hardenne Looks Forward To Life At The Top
Photo By Cynthia Lum By Richard Pagliaro
A pending walk down the aisle occupied Justine Henin's mind during the WTA Tour's season-ending event last year. A little more than a month removed from her first wedding anniversary, Henin-Hardenne's wedding march has turned to a methodical march toward the top of tennis and she seems to be enjoying the trip.
In a conference call with the media to promote the WTA Tour's season-ending tournament set for November 5-10th at the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, Henin-Hardenne discussed several current issues including her quest to succeed compatriot Kim Clijsters as the world's top-ranked player, her recent supremacy over Clijsters in their continued rivalry, how she's overcome her fear factor in playing against the Williams sisters and the impact her U.S. Open victory has had in making her more comfortable playing tournaments in the United States.
Currently ranked second to the top-ranked Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne has been second to none in Grand Slam success this season. The 21-year-old Belgian conquered Clijsters in straight-sets wins in both the Roland Garros and U.S. Open finals, tying her with Australian Open and Wimbledon winner Serena Williams for most majors this year.
Conceding that attaining the No. 1 rank would be the realization of a life-long dream, Henin-Hardenne said she strives to remain practical in her pursuit of the top spot.
"This year, I was focused about winning Grand Slams and I did. And being No. 1, for sure, was a dream when I was young," Henin-Hardenne said. "It could be realistic very soon or maybe no. I have no idea about how things are going to happen in the next few weeks. The only thing I can say is that dreaming about that is not going to happen to achieve that. I have to stay focused and concentrate on what I have to do every day to be No. 1 one day. It would be great if it would happen this year, but it’s not the end of the world. I know this season I know how I played. I know what helped me to achieve that and I want to concentrate and that it’s much more important. And we will see what happens."
Her victories over Clijsters in their most meaningful matches already make Henin-Hardenne the unofficial No. 1 in the minds of many. Once labeled as a player prone to periods of tight play under pressure after building a 6-2, 4-2 lead only to watch it dissipate as she succumbed to nerves and Clijsters' consistent play in bowing 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 to Clijsters in the 2001 Roland Garros semifinals, Henin-Hardenne has transformed herself into one of the most mentally tough competitors in the top 10. She showed grits and guts in fighting back from a one-set, 3-5 deficit against Jennifer Capriati in the U.S. Open semifinals. Two points from defeat, Henin-Hardenne's stubborn spirit and will to win helped her rally for a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(4) victory that was undoubtedly one of the highest-quality U.S. Open matches in years.
Adhering to a rigorous training regimen under noted fitness trainer Pat Etcheberry in Saddlebrook sessions that make boot camp look appear as strenuous as prolonged pedicure, Henin-Hardenne honed her 5-foot-5 physique into peak form. She credits her physical strength for pumping up her psyche.
"I know the work I did. I know that physically I worked very hard and that it helps to be (prepared) mentally," Henin-Hardenne said. "I was just feeling comfortable on the court against Kim. I tried to be focused on what I had to do to concentrate all the time on my game. I think it worked pretty well."
Saddlebrook has served a dual purpose in Henin-Hardenne's career. It is both a haven from the pressure and scrutiny she feels in Belgium and a physical factory for training where she manufactures muscle, produces the power and creates the conditioning during the sweat-soaked workouts have helped carry her to the best season of her five-year career.
"I think that I need to go back to Saddlebrook a little bit because it’s the only
place where I can practice free of all these pressures," Henin-Hardenne said. "In Belgium, it’s not easy. I have a lot of things to do. I will probably go (to Saddlebrook for) the end of November until the beginning of January. So I have a few weeks there. Pat is going to kill me one more time. I know that. But I know that it worked very good for the season and it gives me a lot of motivation to go there because I know there are no secrets, I know I have to work hard because the other players are working hard. Everybody wants the same thing, so you have to work and be professional every day if you want to stay at the top. I’m a little bit nervous because I know it’s going to be hard in the next December because I know what I did last year, but I know also I won two Grand Slams this year and it helped me a lot to achieve that so I have to remember this."
In an age where most women in the top 10 tower over her, Henin-Hardenne's shot making skill, speed and tremendous technique have helped her combat the size disparity she faces on a regular basis. Her significant Slam victories may have inspired Henin-Hardenne's most meaningful loss — she said she's lost her fear of the Williams sisters and welcomes their return to tournament tennis.
"I think they are doing a great job for WTA and we hope to see them again very, very soon. And when they will come back I think they will be stronger than ever," Henin-Hardenne said. "When you have been injured, you always want to win a lot of matches after and you know that both of them are great champions, they have won so many titles. They are very strong. So I know I have to improve my game like I did in the last few months. But I know I still have to work. The thing is, yeah, mentally, I changed my mind and I’m not afraid anymore doesn’t mean I’m not going to lose (laughs), that I’m going to win all the time against them. When I go on the court I say, I have a lot of power, too. I know the game I have to play with them and I know sometimes they don’t like to play against me, so sometimes it makes a great difference."
In her controversial clash with Serena that escalated into an emotional event for both the players and the crowd, Henin-Hardenne showed survival skills in playing determined defense to subdue her harder-hitting opponent and rally for a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory that snapped Williams' 33-match Grand Slam winning streak. The slow surface allowed her to run down several of the stinging shots emanating from Williams' racquet strings that day. But Henin-Hardenne is well aware that to truly challenge either sister on faster surfaces she needs to serve effectively and attack intelligently rather than trying to trade baseline blasts in a power play that does not suit her style.
"I have to still improve many things in my game. I’ll have to go a little bit to the net for sure," Henin-Hardenne said. "Even if I have got more power this year than last year, I’m not going to beat them on the fast surfaces. In the long run, I totally know that. It’s just that I’m not afraid anymore of the rally, but I know that if I want to put a lot of pressure on them, I have to go to a little bit more to the net. Being a little bit more aggressive. And I know that my serve is the key in my game. I work very hard on this part of my game right now. I know I have to be more consistent with my serve. I think in 2004 that’s what I’m looking for. My serve is going to be more consistent and it’s going to help me win easier points."
The two-time Grand Slam champion's poise under pressure won her many American fans during her semifinal showdown with Capriati. The confidence she gained from winning the U.S. Open was a life-altering experience for Henin-Hardenne who said she's grown much more comfortable playing in the country that has become her off season home.
"My victory at the U.S. Open changed a lot of things in my life. It’s not going to be the same anymore," Henin-Hardenne said. "I wasn’t very known in the States a year ago and I won the big tournament at the U.S. Open and I like the situation here because we have to play a lot of tournaments in the States. I’m getting more comfortable when I’m playing here. The fact that I’m practicing at Saddlebrook helps me a lot with the mentality and everything. And I really enjoy playing there