Henin-Hardenne tops Clijsters for Open title

Posted: Sunday, September 07, 2003

NEW YORK In the wee hours of Saturday morning, a dehydrated Justine Henin-Hardenne was sitting on a table in the trainer's room at the U.S. Open, getting intravenous fluids before heading to her hotel to sleep.

Late Saturday afternoon, she was on a practice court, trying to gauge whether she was fit enough to play in her first U.S. Open final a few hours later.

Oh, was she ever.

Taking full advantage of an error-prone opponent, a resilient Henin-Hardenne hit all the right shots and beat No. 1-ranked Kim Clijsters 7-5, 6-1 to win her second Grand Slam title of the year.

''I've always been a great fighter,'' Henin-Hardenne said. ''I always thought the first win in a Grand Slam would be the most important one, but this is amazing.''

She fought off two set points in the first set of the all-Belgian final, but otherwise was in control. Of course, that was nothing compared to the 10 times she was within two points of losing to Jennifer Capriati in their thriller of a semifinal the night before. Henin-Hardenne trailed 5-3 in the second set and 5-2 in the third, and Capriati twice served for the match.

''Justine just played a great match today,'' Clijsters said. ''She was just too good, especially after playing that great match against Jennifer last night the best match I've seen all year.''

Against Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne won nine of the last 10 games and broke serve six times, including in the last game, which ended with a clean volley winner.

It was a rematch of the French Open final, which Henin-Hardenne also won in straight sets. She now leads the tour with seven titles in 2003, one more than Clijsters, and moves up to a career-high No. 2 in the rankings, sliding past the injured Serena Williams.

Still, Henin-Hardenne isn't exactly a household name in the United States: A representative of the main tournament sponsor called her ''Christine'' while presenting the champion's trophy and check during the on-court postmatch ceremony.

Clijsters stays atop the rankings, despite falling to 0-3 in major finals the only woman to reach No. 1 without a Grand Slam title. She was tentative all night, with 30 unforced errors in the first set alone and a final total of 40, twice as many as Henin-Hardenne.

The past two U.S. Opens had all-Williams finals, and either Serena or older sister Venus had won each of the previous four championships. But both sisters missed this tournament.

For large stretches, the level of play Saturday night was less than stellar. Indeed, with all the break points (16) and double-faults (six) and poorly played groundstrokes, it was beginning to resemble one of the early Williams-Williams major finals.

Henin-Hardenne, who's 21, had a pretty good excuse if she wasn't at her absolute best.

She left the National Tennis Center at 2:40 a.m. Saturday, two hours after finishing off the three-hour semifinal victory over Capriati. Henin-Hardenne needed intravenous fluids for dehydration that made her left leg cramp late in that match.

''Last night, when I got off the court, I didn't know what to expect because I was feeling so bad. The doctors and trainers took care of me,'' Henin-Hardenne said.

''I was feeling tired, a lot of fatigue, and I didn't know if I was going to be able to compete and fight 100 percent. This morning, when I woke up, I knew I was going to play, but I needed more time to see how I felt.''

Normally, she would have had more time to prepare for the final, but the women's semifinals were pushed back a day to Friday night because of the rain that disrupted the tournament schedule.

''It's hard to play Grand Slam final when you only have 20 hours to recover,'' Henin-Hardenne said.

So she took her time between serves against Clijsters, bouncing the ball a few extra times to buy some seconds to rest. But she had plenty of adrenaline.

Henin-Hardenne pretty much sealed the title and $1 million prize by breaking to 3-0 in the second set with a full-sprint backhand lob that curled over Clijsters like the tail of a Q. Henin-Hardenne kept jogging and raised a fist in the direction of the guest box, where her husband, coach and personal trainer Pat Etcheberry were sitting.

It's Etcheberry whom the 5-foot-5 1/2, 125-pound Henin-Hardenne credits with building her strength and fitness, allowing her to compete with the best in the world.

Both finalists have come a long way since growing up 15 miles apart in a nation of 10 million people. They have known each other since they were little kids, although they couldn't communicate at the start: Henin-Hardenne spoke French, Clijsters spoke Flemish.

Playing much the way she did at Roland Garros, where she lost 6-0, 6-4, Clijsters got off to a terrible start.

Henin-Hardenne jumped out to a 3-0 lead by winning 12 of the first 15 points, thanks to Clijsters' nine unforced errors in that span. Clijsters finally won a game with help from Henin-Hardenne, whose double-fault made it 3-1.

And Clijsters evened things at 4-4 when Henin-Hardenne gave up another break by dumping a forehand into the net.

Clijsters held to 5-4 with a wonderful sequence where she blocked an overhead with a reflex backhand, then reversed course and swept into the doubles alley to stretch for a clean forehand winner. It was a rare moment of beautiful tennis.

But she had the two set points in the next game and couldn't convert, stymied in part by Henin-Hardenne's first clean winner off her backhand, which John McEnroe has called the prettiest shot in all of tennis.

That began a run of seven consecutive games for Henin-Hardenne, who used a great return to set up a backhand down the line to break to 6-5, then held to win the first set when Clijsters put a forehand in the net.

Clijsters never recovered. Henin-Hardenne was too determined to let her.

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