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One From The Heart: Henin-Hardenne Claims U.S. Open Crown

Photo By Fred Mullane By Richard Pagliaro

The early hours of Super Saturday found Justine Henin-Hardenne lying flat on her back with an IV tube feeding fluid into her body depleted by a draining duel with Jennifer Capriati that spanned more than three hours. She was scheduled to play the U.S. Open final in nearly 19 hours, but at that moment simply summoning the strength to walk out of the room and return to her hotel for recovery was Henin-Hardenne’s primary concern.

Hours later, a USTA press release listed the 5-foot-5 Belgian was listed as questionable for the final. The second-seeded Henin-Hardenne’s performance tonight served as a statement of the power of perseverance.

Fighting off fatigue and two set points, Henin-Hardenne played inspired tennis to claim the U.S. Open championship with a 7-5, 6-1 victory over top-seeded Kim Clijsters.

The epic semifinal that saw Capriati serve for the match twice and close to within two points of victory on 10 occasions sapped some of Henin-Hardenne’s stamina, but never diminished her desire to capture her second career Grand Slam crown.

"It’s unbelievable because yesterday was a great fight against Jennifer and I didn’t know how I was going to play tonight," said Henin-Hardenne, who collected the champion’s check of $1 million. "But I was feeling good on the court and I’m so happy to win."

Bouncing on her toes behind the baseline as if moving to the beat of music she could hear in her head, Henin-Hardenne hit all the right notes in the early stages of the match that saw her break serve at love and eventually extend her lead to 4-2.

A clearly tight Clijsters committed a cluster of forehand errors as Henin-Hardenne hammered away at that sometime streaky stroke. Clijsters, had succumbed to both nerves and Henin-Hardenne’s brilliant baseline play in suffering a 6-0, 6-4 setback in the French Open final, nearly blew a 40-0 lead in the seventh game with a pair of double faults, but quickly collected her composure to hold serve and start a streak of success that saw her win three consecutive games to seize a 5-4 lead.

Serving to stay in the first set, Henin-Hardenne hit a double fault to fall behind 0-30. At that point, Clijsters had collected 10 of the previous 11 points and when Henin-Hardenne framed a forehand wide, the top-ranked Clijsters was in command with a pair of break points.

But Henin-Hardenne had seen this stage of the story unfold in the semis and stepped up to serve believing she had the power to script a successful sequel. Slamming a 104 mph ace down the middle to save the first set point, Henin-Hardenne watched a Clijsters backhand return bounce by the baseline to reach deuce.

A demoralized Clijsters never completely recovered as Henin-Hardenne won 12 of the next 14 points. When a Clijsters forehand crashed into the net, Henin-Hardenne had the set in hand, 7-5, and shouted "Allez!"

Empowered by her one-set lead, Henin-Hardenne opened up the court with exquisitely-angled shots and often punctuated points driving deep shots down the line. The Henin-Hardenne serve set the tone for the second set as she won 11 of her 12 first-serve points compared to Clijsters, who collected only six of her 16 first-serve points.

A fiercely focused Henin-Hardenne hit nine winners and broke Clijsters’ serve three times in the set. Charging the net on match point, Henin-Hardenne hit a sweet swing-volley forehand winner and smiled widely in victory. The exhaustion of Saturday morning had been replace by the elation of Saturday night and the capacity crowd gave the first Belgian to win the U.S. Open title a rousing ovation.

In the city that never sleeps, fans fully embraced the player who never quit.
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