Henin-Hardenne nears a career Grand Slam

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2004

MELBOURNE, Australia Justine Henin-Hardenne needs one more title for a career Grand Slam, with Wimbledon the elusive major.

The Williams sisters may pose the biggest obstacle.

''Wimbledon this year, for sure, is going to be another goal,'' said Henin-Hardenne, the Australian Open champion. ''I still have to improve my game on grass, especially against the strong players like Venus or Serena.''

''I always lost against them over there because they're so powerful,'' she added. ''And I still have to raise my level a little bit more.''

For now, Henin-Hardenne can exult in her latest title in which she beat Belgian countrywoman Kim Clijsters for the third time in three Grand Slam finals.

The 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory Saturday was her third major in eight months, allowing her to keep the No. 1 ranking. She also defeated Clijsters in last season's French and U.S. Open finals.

Her first taste of a Grand Slam final was a loss to Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2001. Venus was upset in the third round in Melbourne after being sidelined six months with abdominal injuries. Serena didn't fully recover from August knee surgery to defend her Australian title.

Henin-Hardenne sealed her victory with a serve Clijsters couldn't return. She slumped to her knees, crouching with both hands over her face. She stood and raised both arms before kissing Clijsters' cheeks at the net.

''I was feeling free of all the pressure. I was really emotional,'' she said. ''I usually never show my emotions, but that was too much I had to.''

Coming into a Grand Slam tournament seeded No. 1 was new ground for Henin-Hardenne.

''I probably didn't play my best tennis in this tournament, but mentally I've been strong,'' she said. ''I played my best when I had to.''

From her opening 6-0, 6-0 win over French qualifier Camille Pin to her 7-5, 6-3 semifinal win over No. 5 Lindsay Davenport, the 2000 champion, Henin-Hardenne didn't drop a set.

Clijsters sprained her left ankle at the Hopman Cup three weeks ago but recovered well enough to advance without dropping a set.

After being broken in fifth game to surrender the first set and then going down a break at 4-2 in the second, Clijsters regrouped to tie it at one set apiece.

Henin-Hardenne raced to a 4-0 lead in the third before Clijsters rallied and broke her twice to get back on serve at 4-3. She twice had game point to make it 4-4 but double-faulted each time.

Facing a break point, her overhit forehand appeared to catch the line. But, on Henin-Hardenne's question, the chair umpire overruled and called the ball out. Henin-Hardenne served out in the next game.

Clijsters said she didn't want to dwell on one line call, especially when she considered herself lucky to be healthy enough to even play.

''I definitely felt like I played better than I did in previous finals against her,'' she said. ''I fought really well to get back ... but she brought so many balls back that made me go a little bit out of my comfort zone.''

The two are longtime friends and frequent traveling partners. They are 9-9 in head-to-heads, with Henin-Hardenne up 3-2 in Grand Slams.

Clijsters is 0-4 in Grand Slam finals, including the 2001 French Open loss to Jennifer Capriati. Henin-Hardenne has yet to beat one of the Williams sisters in a major final.

The Williams sisters have 10 Grand Slam singles titles between them since Serena won the first of her six at U.S. Open in 1999. Venus won back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 2000 and 2001 before losing five finals at majors to her sister.

''I think it's going to be another kind of motivation,'' Henin-Hardenne said.

In the men's final, Marat Safin, with clear evidence he has recovered from an injury-plagued 2003, plays Wimbledon champ Roger Federer. Safin beat U.S. Open champ Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals and defending champion Andre Agassi in the semis.

Federer will be No. 1 in Monday's rankings, regardless of the outcome.

In Sunday's other championship, Martina Navratilova chases a 10th career Grand Slam mixed doubles title when she teams with Leander Paes against Nenad Zimonjic and Elena Bovina.

In Saturday's men's doubles, Frenchmen Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro kept their title in a 7-6 (4), 6-3 win over top-seeded American twins Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan.

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