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Henin-Hardenne takes French title

Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2003

PARIS Justine Henin-Hardenne won the French Open for Belgium, for her husband and for her coach.

She won it for all the players out there who rely more on precision than power.

Mostly, though, she won it for her late mother, who brought a 10-year-old Justine to Roland Garros to watch a tennis match in person for the first time.

In that same stadium Saturday, Henin-Hardenne dominated countrywoman Kim Clijsters from the start for a 6-0, 6-4 victory. She won the first Grand Slam title of her career and the first for the neighboring nation of 10 million.

''I would like to dedicate this victory to my mother, who is watching over me in heaven. I hope you are very proud of me, mother,'' Henin-Hardenne said. ''She gave me all the energy I needed to win the match. When I woke up this morning, I said, 'You'll have to win. You'll have to do it for your mom.'''

After four straight all-Williams major finals, this was the first all-Belgian major final. King Albert and Queen Paola of Belgium sat in the front row, and Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt made the 125-mile trip from Brussels, too.

Predictably, one fan yelled in French, ''Go, Belgium!'' just as someone always was clever enough to scream, ''Go, Williams!'' during the sisters' all-in-the-family finals.

The French Open men's final Sunday also will pit two players who never have won a major: 2002 runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero and unseeded Martin Verkerk.

While warming up on center court, Henin-Hardenne stole a glance at the seats where she sat with Mom when her favorite player, Steffi Graf, lost to Monica Seles in the 1992 final. Her mother, Francoise, died of cancer nine years ago.

''It was the first tournament I went to. It was just amazing. I was a little girl who was coming to see her idols,'' said Henine-Hardenne, who is estranged from her father.

''I said, 'One day, I'll be on this court, and maybe I'll win.' And today I did.''

And she produced the most lopsided French Open women's final since Graf's 6-0, 6-0 win over Natasha Zvereva in 1988.

Henin-Hardenne has been on the wrong end of that sort of score, having lost the 2001 Wimbledon final to Venus Williams 6-0 in the third set. The Belgian faltered in the late stages of other Grand Slams, too, eliminated in the semifinals three times, including at the 2001 French Open. She blew a 6-2, 4-2 lead against Clijsters that day, but Henin-Hardenne is mentally stronger now.

''Justine is a very emotional person; today was a very big test,'' said Carlos Rodriguez, her coach since she was 14. ''Now I see a girl who is confident of her potential, and I know she can go further.''

When Clijsters' forehand hit the net on match point, Henin-Hardenne tossed her racket, looked up to the sky, and covered her face.

After embracing Clijsters, the champion walked off the court. She reappeared in the guest box, where she graciously granted a TV interview before wading through a crowd to hug her husband of seven months and Rodriguez.

Later, the fourth-seeded Henin-Hardenne called the title ''great for my career, but it's not everything in life,'' adding: ''I have people that I love around me, and that's the most important thing.''

She dictated points by placing groundstrokes right where she wanted them, often in the corners. Henin-Hardenne long has owned the smoothest backhand in women's tennis, and her forehand was just as effective.

''Justine just didn't give me anything for free,'' said Clijsters, who will play in the doubles final Sunday, her 20th birthday. ''I hope I can get another chance.''

Despite the score, she had plenty of chances against Henin-Hardenne. Clijsters held six break points in the first set, but converted none.

Then, trailing 3-2 in the second set, Clijsters had two more break points, but ceded the game with five errant shots. One was particularly ugly: A sky hook that landed in the middle of the net.

She finally broke serve to get to 4-4 in the second set, and Henin-Hardenne briefly thought about what happened here in 2001.

It also riled up a crowd filled with Belgians looking for any excuse to make noise. Clijsters hopped at the baseline, pumping herself up, while her boyfriend, Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt, clapped.

The intrigue lasted all of three minutes, the amount of time it took Henin-Hardenne to break right back with a forehand winner off a short backhand slice by Clijsters, who lost the 2001 French final to Jennifer Capriati.

A year ago at Roland Garros, Henin-Hardenne was upset in the first round by a qualifier. She was much more resilient the past two weeks, beating No. 19 Patty Schnyder, No. 8 Chanda Rubin and No. 1 Serena Williams.

By backing up her semifinal upset of Williams with a win over another hard hitter, No. 2 Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne became just the ninth player to beat players ranked Nos. 1 and 2 at a major since computer rankings began in 1975.

Proud to be the first Belgian major champion, the 5-foot-5, 125-pound Henin-Hardenne also was pleased to show size doesn't necessarily matter.

''It's good to believe that power is not everything, that we can play with other things. I have to play differently from the other players,'' she said. ''I'm not so tall, I'm not so strong, but I can win.''



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