Ferrero, Henin-Hardenne set sights high

Given the wonderful combination of confidence and skills displayed by Juan Carlos Ferrero and Justine Henin-Hardenne at the French Open, who can say they don't have it in them to go all the way to the top this season, asks NIRMAL SHEKAR.

SN Community Chat on the Internet, 10 a.m., Monday, June 9.

"Dutch girl? And you encouraged Ferrero and not Verkerk."

"Yeah. I am really happy. Vamos Juan (Carlos Ferrero)."

Juan Carlos Ferrero Forum on the Internet, 11 a.m., June 9.

"I am really worried what I'd do when he retires. Can't even think about it."

The worried woman is immediately consoled: "He is only 23. A bit too early for that question," says the one she is chatting with.

"Oh. I'm gonna have a lot of nightmares when he retires."

THE name Juan Carlos Ferrero may have barely created a ripple even among the most passionate sports fans in this country, until the other day. And, even today, after the 23-year old Spaniard's triumph in the French Open championship in Paris, the handsome young man is not an athlete who'd touch off waves in this country or even in the United States, for that matter.

But right across Europe, the man nicknamed Mosquito has been creating quite a buzz for quite some time now. And in many countries in Europe, the Ferrero fan club can boast of the sort of membership that would rival anything that has ever been seen in the case of an icon like Andre Agassi in the United States.

The lady who lifted the trophy a day ahead of Ferrero, dancing joyfully on the crushed brick dust of Roland Garros — Justine Henin-Hardenne — may not have quite as many male fans as Ferrero has female fans. But Henin-Hardenne, too, is one of the most popular players to come out of Europe in recent times.

In the event, the maiden Grand Slam titles that Ferrero and Henin-Hardenne won last fortnight brought up a memorable fortnight for tennis fans although both the finals turned out to be lopsided and disappointing.

Yet, in a tournament of many upsets — and one that witnessed the eclipse of a juggernaut, Serena Williams — both the champions were popular winners who deserved their moments of glory on the red clay of Roland Garros.

Shot for shot, slide for slide, droplet of sweat for droplet of sweat, the French Open is by far the toughest Grand Slam to win and, in the end, both Ferrero and Henin-Hardenne made it look so easy.

"It's a great feeling to have won the trophy you most wanted to win," said Ferrero who has now set his sights on the No.1 ranking. "Now that I have won this tournament, I want to be No. 1. That is my top priority. This is the closest I have been to the top spot. I am trying to become the best in the world. Hewitt is my main rival. Agassi is getting older, maybe in two years he will be retiring. But Hewitt is one year younger, so he will be on the tour longer to fight against me," said the Spaniard.

Henin-Hardenne, whose victory pushed her up to No. 3 in the WTA rankings, ahead of Venus Williams, also seemed keen on going to the very top this season, using the French success as a springboard.

"My next goals are the next Grand Slams and to become No. 1 in the world," said the petite Belgian who blew her friend and countrywoman, Kim Clijsters, off the court in the most one-sided French women's final since the great Steffi Graf beat Natalia Zvereva 6-0, 6-0 in 33 minutes in 1988.

Given the wonderful combination of confidence and skills displayed by the two young champions in Paris, who can say they don't have it in them to go all the way to the top this season?

"It's a great feeling to have won the trophy you most wanted to win," said Juan Carlos Ferrero after his triumph. — Pic. PASCAL LE SEGRETAIN/GETTY IMAGES-

Called "Chavalito" (Little Kid) by his fellow countrymen on the Tour, Ferrero has certainly taken a giant leap in the span of a fortnight. The transition from boy to man is complete, no kidding!

From the time he first appeared on the Tour in 1999, a year in which he moved 302 places in rankings to finish at No. 43, few in the game have had any doubts about Ferrero's talent.

The dashing young man from Villena won his maiden ATP title in September 1999, beating Alex Corretja in the final in Mallorca but it was two years later, in 2001, that Ferrero established himself as a big league player, winning four ATP titles and finishing the year at No. 5.

But, then, despite being widely recognised as the finest young clay court player in the men's game, Ferrero, who went into last year's French Open final as a firm favourite, ended up losing to Albert Costa. And when he went down in five thrilling sets to Lleyton Hewitt in the Masters final in Shanghai later in the year, questions were being asked about his mental toughness when the big day arrived on the big stage. In the event, last fortnight in Paris, Ferrero answered his critics in great style.

"Before the match I knew I had to be at my best mentally, physically and tennistically (sic)," said Ferrero. "I went on the court confident. Last year I played badly in the final. This time I always believed I could win. All the time I was perfect."

Perfection is something that Henin-Hardenne too might have been familiar with during the fortnight. Her only awkward moment came after the title had been won and lost. Keen to share the greatest moment of her career with her husband of seven months, Pierre Yves, Henin-Hardenne headed to the stands where he was seated after beating Clijsters without realising that Pierre was on his way to the court himself.

For a moment, Henin-Hardenne looked lost as she stared at the empty seat before Pierre arrived there in a hurry and the two shared a touching private moment in public, in front of millions of television viewers.

At 5-foot-5 and 126 pounds, Henin-Hardenne is the smallest of the top ranked players. But from the time she stroked her way wonderfully on grass to make the Wimbledon final two years ago, many of us had been sure in our minds that this gifted athlete would win a major some day.

Her backhand — single handed, to be sure — is a thing of beauty, a stroke that has prompted John McEnroe to say, time and again, that she was his favourite player. And, in her second Grand Slam final, in front of King Albert and Queen Paola of Belgium, even as a nervous Clijsters came apart, Henin-Hardenne was a pretty picture of perfection.

A day later, back home, Henin-Hardenne was treated like royalty. "It's hard to find words to tell you how much this means to me," she said from the balcony of Brussels's 15th century City Hall.

Then again, this French Open, in the end, was very much about royalty. The climactic acts might have lacked drama but they were very much like a coronation.

Welcome the future King and Queen of tennis? Who knows? But the idea may not be far-fetched.