Dehydrated Henin musters strength to beat Clijsters

It was 1:45 in the morning on the women's final day, and as the exhausted Justine Henin-Hardenne lay on a trainer's table with an intravenous tube running into her left arm, she hardly looked like someone on the verge of winning her first US Open.

CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

Justine Henin-Hardenne points to the crowd after defeating No. 1 seed Kim Clijsters in the final. The No. 2 seed Henin-Hardenne won in straight sets. "What I did last night was great, simply great. I'm so happy right now,'' said the Belgian after the victory. — Pic. AFP-

It was 1:45 in the morning on the women's final day, and as the exhausted Justine Henin-Hardenne lay on a trainer's table with an intravenous tube running into her left arm, she hardly looked like someone on the verge of winning her first US Open.

She had needed more than three hours to beat both Jennifer Capriati and leg cramps in the semifinals in one of the finest matches of this or any other year, and when she finally left the National Tennis Center, with a small group of Belgian fans cheering her on, it was nearly 3 a.m.

But Henin-Hardenne, who won the Open later in the day with a 7-5, 6-1 victory over her countrywoman Kim Clijsters, has proved her resilience through the years and the fears: overcoming the death of her mother and an enduring rift with her father to become one of the finest tennis players in the world despite standing nearly a head shorter than some of her more intimidating opponents.

Though she once had a reputation as a supremely gifted yet emotionally brittle player, she has torn up that label and written herself a new one this season by routinely thriving under great pressure.

And so, knowing all that, it was somehow not that huge a surprise to see Henin-Hardenne walking into Arthur Ashe Stadium shortly after 8 with her jaunty, natural athlete's gait; not that much of a shock to see her jump out to a 3-0 lead against her childhood measuring stick turned professional rival; not that hard to fathom as she fought through a midset letdown to seize control of the moment and this final for good by winning seven games in a row.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that when Bill Harrison of the tournament sponsor J. P. Morgan Chase handed Henin-Hardenne her record winner's cheque of $1 million, he called her Christine. No, it has not been a stellar second week for the American organisers of this venerable, not-always-lovable Grand Slam tournament.

Between the days of rain and the chorus of gripes from foreign players about the politics of scheduling and court drying, there is much to improve for next year, but it will be exceedingly difficult to trump Henin-Hardenne's performance down the stretch. "It was a great fight against Jennifer, and I didn't know how I'd feel tonight on the court in the final,'' said Henin-Hardenne, who said she did not get to sleep until around 4 a.m. and had to undergo more treatment after she woke up.

She ended up feeling a lot better than Clijsters, her much more rested countrywoman, who had not lost a set in her first six matches here but who appeared to lose her nerve once more. Clijsters is now the player with the reputation for coming up small in big matches, and though she will still be No. 1 on the computer, she cannot, for the moment, be considered the best player in her own tiny country.

While Clijsters is still searching for her first Grand Slam singles title, Henin-Hardenne has already won two. She also beat Clijsters in straight sets in the French Open final in June.

Kim Clijsters of Belgium is pensive as she walks to her chair between games in the final, at the USTA National Tennis Center.— Pic. NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES-

"I always thought that the first win in a Grand Slam would be the most important one, but today is a great feeling, because it's a very different feeling from the French Open,'' Henin-Hardenne said. "What I did last night was great, simply great. I'm so happy right now.''

According to her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, she is stronger, in large part from her off-season and in-season work with the trainer Pat Etcheberry in Florida. "I was close to tears at times in 200- and 400-metre races on grass or when I was working in the sand really hard,'' she said.

"But he helped me understand that if I didn't work like that I wasn't going to make it.''

Henin-Hardenne had to save two set points in the opening set after falling behind by 15-40 on her serve at 4-5, but she saved both: one with an ace and the next on an unforced error from Clijsters, which was hardly the exception.

"I definitely felt like the first six matches I played coming into the final, I definitely played a lot better,'' Clijsters said. "On the other hand, I played an opponent who was, you know, the best one out there today and was definitely the best one out of the whole tournament.''

The French-speaking Henin-Hardenne, 21, and the Flemish-speaking Clijsters, 20, have followed remarkably similar career paths since they developed their games on different sides of Belgium's linguistic divide. But their career paths have diverged more widely than usual in the last three months.

Though their head-to-head record is 8-8, Henin-Hardenne has won four of their last five matches, including a testy final in San Diego last month when Clijsters implied that Henin-Hardenne was guilty of gamesmanship for taking an injury timeout to treat blisters after losing the first set.

Clijsters considered that break more tactical than essential. Henin-Hardenne denied that, attributing Clijsters' comments to disappointment, but the allegations clearly bothered her: particularly after she had also been accused of gamesmanship during her victory over Serena Williams in the French Open semifinals because she had not acknowledged holding up her hand as Williams prepared to serve in the final set.

"In my heart, I know I'm a clean player,'' Henin-Hardenne said recently. But when she cramped late in the third set against Capriati, she still stopped herself from calling the trainer because she was concerned about drawing more criticism.

"A lot of people talked about me very badly in the last few weeks, and I did a big mistake, because I needed the trainer,'' Henin-Hardenne said. "So I think it's the last time I'm doing this kind of mistake.''

New York Times News Service