A year to remember for Justine Henin

Most importantly for women's tennis, Henin, Mauresmo and Sharapova have brought in a great amount of quality, intensity and rivalry, writes Nandita Sridhar.

If not for the breathtaking beauty of its execution, Justine Henin-Hardenne's backhand has, in its savagery, a certain resemblance with the movement of an executioner's axe. In some ways, the backhand represents her brand of tennis itself, which is beautiful, yet ruthless.

The Belgian's fighting qualities are no longer secret weapons. It might not have been enough for her to fight a stomach virus at the Australian Open final. It might not have been enough for her to prevail, in probably the highest quality of serve-and-volley tennis seen in recent women's tennis, at the Wimbledon final. It might not have been enough to halt Maria Sharapova on a rampage. But, as we saw through 2006, it was enough to survive the tough grind of clay-court tennis and end up winning; it was enough to finish on top at the end of the year and win the WTA Tour Championships, it was enough to reach all four Grand Slam finals and maintain a winning record over most of the top-8 women, and most importantly, it was enough to fight injury after injury (a knee injury prevented her participation in a few tournaments after the US Open), and stake claim to being one of the toughest players in the women's game.

Judging by mere statistics in 2006, the Belgian has had a better record against most of the top-8 in women's tennis, except Amelie Mauresmo (2-3). It is 5-0 against Svetlana Kuznetsova, 3-0 against Kim Clijsters, 3-1 against Maria Sharapova, 1-1 against Elena Dementieva, 2-0 against Martina Hingis and 3-1 against Nadia Petrova. This shows her amazing level of consistency throughout the year. Losing three Grand Slam finals is probably a blot, but she was facing two women of varied levels of intense pressure. One wanted to shrug off the choker label, while the other was desperate to shed the tag, one-Slam-wonder.

Unlike the 2004 Grand Slam season, which was almost Russian Roulette in its randomness, and an unexpected series of winners in 2005, this year has been a little more consistent, which was why the Tour Championships was expected to have one of the top-three finish on top. The field was never easy, with Henin having to tackle different styles of play. Mauresmo and Sharapova were always going to be the other serious contenders, besides, Henin.

Sharapova was on a 19-match winning streak, not letting slip even a set in the round-robin, as she went into the semifinals. Henin had just gone down to Mauresmo, and it looked like the queen of scream would steamroll the Belgian in the semis. Helped by the "I-didn't-feel-like-myself" Russian's largesse of errors, Henin served, volleyed, and ran in aggressively. With the knees and the calves not in perfect shape, charging into the net and volleying was the only way to alter the routine women's tennis script that revolves around serial rallies.

Against Mauresmo, Henin, helped by a less than perfect forehand by her opponent, showcased yet another display of quality serve-and-volley tennis. Mauresmo herself was doing no less, at the other end. In victory too, she thrived and fed off her reserves of steel, coming through injuries and illnesses.

"Maybe I had this feeling during this tournament I couldn't play a lot of rallies, but I think I moved pretty well, but I just wanted to take my chances and you know go for it, not waiting for the mistakes of the other players and just take my opportunities. And the key for me this week was being very aggressive, no matter what happens, the last matches I did a lot of serve and volley. I went to the net. It really paid off. I cannot say I was 100 percent this week, but it was amazing what happened for me in the last few days," said the world number one.

As much as the Grand Slams are unparalleled in their importance, the WTA Championships has its significance in the psychological impact that it has on the winner and others, when the next season begins. Even if she hadn't won, Henin's achievements this year would still be staggering. Most importantly for women's tennis, Henin, Mauresmo and Sharapova have brought in a great amount of quality, intensity and rivalry, to the top of the table. The Henin-Mauresmo clashes invariably promise high quality play, notwithstanding what happened in the Australian Open final. "If we both definitely keep playing, keep being consistent at the highest level, of course, I guess we're going to have more meetings," said Mauresmo. "I definitely want to be in other Grand Slam finals and compete against the best players. I think that's why you play tennis, to have these big moments, these big matches, even when sometimes you lose, it's not easy to handle. But it makes you stronger."

Sharapova herself was pleased with the way she has dramatically improved her game. "I definitely think I'm a much better tennis player than I was a year or two ago but I think I can get even better and there are a lot of things to improve in my game," said the US Open champion after entering the semifinals.

"I feel physically stronger, my muscles are building a bit and I feel as though I can play three-set matches and not worry about being fatigued afterwards. The US Open was a good example as I was able to take back-to-back wins over the number one and two players in the world. I couldn't have done that a year ago," she added

Kim Clijsters, Martina Hingis, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and Elena Dementieva, have enough in their games to stun a top seed or two, in what looks like being an interesting 2007. But thoughts of next year will promptly be pushed aside by the Belgian, who is in no hurry to think ahead.

"2006 is almost done, and when I look back, I see only good things, even when I think about my tough matches in the Grand Slam finals. It's probably the best season of my career; I'll enjoy it in the next two months," she said.