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Henin-Hardenne wins first major title
By Greg Garber
ESPN.com


PARIS -- She had just arrived at the ultimate moment of her 21 years when, much to the surprise of the 15,000 patrons wedged into Court Philippe Chatrier, Justine Henin-Hardenne ducked below the stands and disappeared into a tunnel.


Justine Henin-Hardenne dedicated the victory to her late mother.


Meanwhile, husband Pierre-Yves -- the reason she became hyphenated seven months ago -- left his seat behind the baseline and headed toward the court. Henin suddenly materialized where her husband had been, only to find it empty. An awkward minute or two followed while he navigated his way back to her.

Finally, they locked in a long embrace, warm applause filling the air.

Nice. At least they hadn't pre-planned the celebration.

Other than that blip, Henin-Hardenne handled the occasion with impressive ease, thrashing fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters 6-0, 6-4 in Saturday's French Open final. It was her greatest sporting achievement, but it came within a context.

"It's very hard to find the right words because it's very special emotion," Henin-Hardenne said. "I can't really tell you how I'm feeling because it's more than you would think.

"It's great for my career, but it's not everything in my life. It's a great moment and I'll try to enjoy it. But I have people that I love around me, and that's the most important thing for me."

When she was 11 years old, Henin-Hardenne came to the French Open with her mother, Francoise. It was the 1992 final between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Henin-Hardenne told herself that one day she would come to Roland Garros and perhaps, she thought, she might win.

"I was a little girl who was coming to see her idols," Henin-Hardenne said. "I can tell you this morning when I practiced, I just watched the place I was 11 years ago and it was very special."

Henin-Hardenne dedicated the victory to her mother, who died of cancer a few years later.

"I think she gave me all the energy I needed to win the match," she said. "When I woke up this morning, I said, 'You'll have to win, you'll have to do it for your mom.' And it was a lot of emotion at the end of the match."

While Clijsters is the No. 2 player in the world and Henin-Hardenne will be No. 3 when the rankings come out Monday, this result was hardly a surprise. Henin-Hardenne ended Serena Williams' 21-match winning streak in April and stopped her run of 33 consecutive Grand Slam singles victories in the semifinals here. She also ended the streak of 11 consecutive Grand Slam titles won by American women; following Mary Pierce's win at Roland Garros three years ago, the Slams have been ruled by Serena Williams (four), Venus Williams (four) and Jennifer Capriati (three).

It was, frankly, a little odd to see a Williams-less Grand Slam final. After all, the last four featured Serena beating Venus. This time, it was a pair of Belgians, each looking for her first Slam victory.

Two years ago, in her only previous Grand Slam finals appearance, Henin-Hardenne had leveled her Wimbledon match with Venus Williams at one set each when she hit the wall. She lost all six games to Williams, an embarrassing finish.

On this day when Henin-Hardenne took the court, her lethal look of resolve suggested it wouldn't happen again. But it did -- the other way around.

Clijsters, on her last day as a teenager, looked nervous. Maybe it was because her side of the draw had been thinned considerably; Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Capriati were all knocked out by others, so Clijsters' last two opponents had been No. 24 seed Conchita Martinez and unseeded Nadia Petrova. Henin-Hardenne, meanwhile, had seen the tough Patty Schnyder, No. 8 Chanda Rubin and Serena Williams.

Henin-Hardenne broke Clijsters' serve in the opening game with a few stylish backhands. After falling into a love-40 hole, Henin-Hardenne served her way out for 2-0. Going for too much on both sides, Clijsters was broken again in the third game. Twelve minutes into the match, it seemed to be over.

But three unforced errors later, Henin-Hardenne was down love-40 for the second straight service game. She unleashed an unreturnable serve, and Clijsters followed by dumping two forehands into the net for deuce. A backhand winner and another service winner brought Henin-Hardenne to 4-0. She took the set with a gorgeous, slicing drop shot that barely cleared the net. Clijsters barely moved from her spot along the baseline.

The funny thing? Clijsters actually held game points in four of the six games.

"I felt like when I was three-love down, it could have been three-love to me," Clijsters said. "I had game point in every game there. And, you know, Justine played too good, I think, in those points."

Clijsters was broken in the third game of the second set when Henin-Hardenne authored a backhand volley winner. Still, there was a moment in the fifth game where she started to find a groove. It was an innocuous-looking forehand winner, but it was a smooth, comfortable stroke and Clijsters eventually pulled even at 4-all.

Just as quickly, she lost her serve again.

From just inside the baseline, Henin-Hardenne lashed an exquisitely pure backhand cross-court winner for the first point. And for the last, she banged an inside-out forehand for the 5-4 lead. And after she had prevailed and had embraced her husband and her coach of seven years, Carlos Rodriguez, Henin-Hardenne looked around the stadium and smiled.

The smile was still there an hour later when she appeared at her post-match news conference.

"I can't believe it's mine," she said, turning the front of the sterling trophy around to look at it.

Henin-Hardenne's win here was an upset. For she is, in some ways, a stranger in the strange land of tennis.

She is the smallest of the elite players; at 5-foot-5, 126 pounds, she gives away several inches and 25 to 35 pounds to players such as Clijsters and the Williams sisters. And while the soft, red clay here blunts their power and effectively levels the field for Henin-Hardenne, she has improved, too.

After last year, she made a commitment to become physically stronger. Somehow, along the way, she became emotionally stronger.

"I'm not so tall," she said. "I'm not so strong. But I can win."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
 
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