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A hard life turns around
June 9 2003
BY Richard Hinds at Roland Garros
The Sydney Morning Herald
Queen for a day: Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne shows off her trophy for the French Open women's singles title in front of the Eiffel Tower on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images.

Justine Henin-Hardenne did not find happiness by winning the French Open. She won the French Open because, after a long personal struggle, she has finally found happiness.

Although she had been a precocious talent, sweeping junior titles and reaching a Wimbledon final when just 19, Henin-Hardenne had not been content. The death of her mother when she was 14 and the subsequent estrangement from her demanding father were never far from her thoughts. Not even on the court, where she would try to find the fulfilment that eluded her at other times.

As a result, Henin-Hardenne was driven but brittle. Because winning meant so much, the fear of defeat lurked beneath the surface. At the 2001 French Open, when leading Kim Clijsters 6-2, 4-1 in a semi-final, it emerged as Henin-Hardenne collapsed and suffered a bitter defeat. Since then she has married, formed a close circle of friends and supporters, and purged some of her past problems in cathartic if somewhat premature memoirs.

"I think mentally she looks a lot happier as well, on and off the court," said Clijsters, after losing the first all-Belgian final 6-0, 6-4. "And I think that is what is making a little bit of difference."

Henin-Hardenne dedicated the victory to her mother, who had taken her to Roland Garros to watch the 1992 final between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf.

"I said, 'One day I'll be on the court and maybe I'll win', and today I did," she said. "I think she [her mother] gave me the energy I needed to win the match. When I woke up this morning I said, 'You'll have to do it for your mum'. And it was a lot of emotion at the end of the match."

It took a little bit longer than normal for that emotion to spill over. The unexpectedly one-sided, 67-minute final ended when a Clijsters groundstroke hit the let cord and, after a brief hesitation, dropped on her side of the court.

"I didn't know on the match point where the ball was, on my side or her side, so it was hard to respond," Henin-Hardenne said.

There was another slight moment of anticlimax. Henin-Hardenne went looking for her husband Pierre-Yves Hardenne and coach Carlos Rodriguez but could not find them. Later, after she had finally embraced them, she said that pair meant more to her than the title.

"Today I win the French Open," she said. "It's great for my career, but it's not everything in my life. It's just a big step, it's just a great moment, and I'll try to enjoy it 100 per cent. But I have people around me that love me and that's the most important thing for me."

Despite her triumph, Henin-Hardenne has no plans to reconcile with her father.

"I just took decisions a long time ago now, I took the right decisions," she said. "I have the people I want around me. That's the most important thing, you know. In life you have to make choices even if they're hard."

As her deep, frightened eyes dart from side to side, Henin-Hardenne can sometimes look like a rabbit caught in a spotlight. But, as Clijsters found, that appearance is deceptive.

Henin-Hardenne also showed that her game is not solely dependent on precise placement and tricky angles. While Clijsters is far more muscular, for the most part she was woman-handled by her smaller opponent, as Henin-Hardenne swept in behind some aggressive groundstrokes and a surprising serve to pummel the decisive winners.

"I'm not so tall, I'm not so strong but I can win," she said. "It makes me a little more proud."

When she updates her autobiography, it will not be the one-sided final but Henin-Hardenne's tumultuous semi-final victory over Serena Williams that makes the most compelling reading. While the Belgian had prevailed in that match, Williams was still a factor in the final.

Could Henin-Hardenne gather herself again after all the emotional energy she had spent to conquer the world No.1? Would Williams's accusations that she had lied to an umpire about putting up her hand to indicate she was not ready for the American's serve be somewhere in her subconscious?

They were the questions Clijsters should have posed by testing Henin-Hardenne's nerves in the early stages. Instead, in one of the more disappointing grand slam performances, the No.2 seed crumpled under pressure.

So poor was Clijsters's range in the first set that you started to wonder if the courts in the northern, Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, from where she hails, were longer than those at Roland Garros. Almost as disappointing were Clijsters's clumsy attempts to use the drop shot. Sometimes this shot is said to be telegraphed. So thinly veiled were Clijsters' efforts that she might as well have emailed her intentions to Henin-Hardenne the previous day.

Given she had not been tested on her way through the easier part of the draw, it was difficult to tell if Clijsters was overcome by nerves or had simply not played that well throughout the tournament, and finally met her match. However, given she had collapsed when holding a 5-1 lead in the deciding set against Serena Williams in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, the pressure will only build on the world No.2 to produce her best at the big moments in a grand slam.

"No, I wasn't nervous," she said, before backtracking slightly. "Of course I was nervous, but I think in a good way.

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