Injured Pierce no match for Henin-Hardenne
BY RICK NELSON
Of The Post and Courier Staff
It's hard enough to beat Justine Henin-Hardenne on a good day, but trying to do it on one good leg is impossible.
Mary Pierce learned that the hard way Friday in the quarterfinals of the Family Circle Cup.
Pierce, who had talked excitedly about finally being healthy a day earlier, aggravated a strained leg muscle in the first set. That was more than the second-seeded Henin-Hardenne needed as she painted the stadium court with laser-like shots and cruised to a 6-2, 6-3 win.
"I didn't change anything because I saw her a little injured," Henin-Hardenne said. "The tactic was very simple. I had to be aggressive because, if you give her a little bit of time, then she can hit a lot of winners."
Henin-Hardenne, the world's No. 4 player, moves on to today's semifinals against wild card Ashley Harkleroad, a 17-year-old who is ranked 101st.
The unseeded Pierce, who was the last former Family Circle Cup champion left in the field, needed a flawless performance to have a chance against the machine-like Henin-Hardenne. The injury made that unlikely, but she said she didn't want to give up.
"I was debating the whole time should I retire or should I keep going," Pierce said. "I just have a really hard time retiring in a match, and I always think there's a chance."
Praying for rain or counting on Henin-Hardenne to make mistakes was not a good plan.
Henin-Hardenne has the best backhand in women's tennis. It is a devastating shot that appears so effortless that it is the most requested download at the Tennis One instructional web site.
The rest of her game was clicking, too. She managed to hit sharp angles on her forehand, nail crisp passing shots and find open spots for drop shots. In all, she compiled 36 winners with only 10 unforced errors while Pierce had 20 winners and 17 unforced errors.
"I'm pretty happy. I played better today than I did the last two matches," Henin-Hardenne said. "It's (my) first tournament on clay (this year), so I think we need a couple of matches to be fit."
It was clear early that Pierce's magical run through the Family Circle Cup was in jeopardy. She aggravated her inner thigh muscle after holding serve to go up 2-1 in the first set, and called for the trainer after going down a break at 2-3.
"It totally affects the way I hit the ball," she said of the injury. "I had to compensate and hit the ball differently afterward."
As the pair retreated into the locker room to work on Pierce's leg, Henin-Hardenne took the opportunity to hit some serves. The extra practice must have worked because Pierce failed to convert on three break opportunities in the first set, and managed just one point off Henin-Hardenne's serve in the second set.
"After (the medical break) I served so well and had a lot of aces (seven), a lot of good first serves," Henin-Hardenne said.
Pierce leaves Daniel Island with her second quarterfinals appearance of the year, and hopes that her sore right leg doesn't slow her comeback from two years of injuries.
For now, she is happy with her performance this week, which included upsets over 10th-ranked Anastasia Myskina and 18th-ranked Amanda Coetzer. Both are accomplished clay court players, a good sign as the tour begins a series of clay court events culminating with the French Open.
"I feel like I've had a great tournament," Pierce said.