Henin-Hardenne fulfils a promise

ON her first trip to Roland Garros in 1992, a 10-year-old Belgian girl was in the stands for the women's final and left for home disappointed after Monica Seles defeated her idol, Steffi Graf.

CHRISTOPHER CLAREYNew York Times News Service

ON her first trip to Roland Garros in 1992, a 10-year-old Belgian girl was in the stands for the women's final and left for home disappointed after Monica Seles defeated her idol, Steffi Graf.

Justine Henin-Hardenne throws her arms up in joy after defeating compatriot Kim Clijsters in the women's final of the French Open at Roland Garros. Henin-Hardenne won 6-0, 6-4. — Pic. AFP-

Justine Henin-Hardenne grew up to be a tennis star, and, in the same stadium, it was her turn to play in the French Open women's final. This time when the match finished, there was nothing resembling disappointment on her face.

Henin-Hardenne's sparkling, surprisingly lopsided 6-0, 6-4 victory over Kim Clijsters made her the first Belgian to win a Grand Slam singles title, and her presence on centre court fulfilled a promise she made during that 1992 final to her mother, Francoise, who died of cancer when she was 12.

"I want to dedicate this victory to my mother, who is watching over me from paradise; I hope she was very proud of me," Henin-Hardenne told the crowd after being presented with the Suzanne Lenglen Trophy.

It was a poignant moment and a bittersweet afternoon for her small country because Clijsters, the popular 19-year-old whom she dominated, is also Belgian and, unlike Henin-Hardenne, she did not play her best on this huge national occasion.

Sitting in the front row of the President's box for the first all-Belgian final in Grand Slam history were the Belgian King, Queen and Prime Minister. But though the second-seeded Clijsters and the fourth-seeded Henin-Hardenne have played some long, compelling matches in the past, most recently in the final of the Berlin event in which Henin-Hardenne won in three sets, this 1-hour-7-minute match would not live up to its billing.

The two Belgians have been rivals since they played 10-and-under tournaments in Belgium. At first they communicated only with sign language because Clijsters did not speak French and Henin-Hardenne did not speak Flemish. Though Henin-Hardenne is 53 weeks older, Clijsters has, until now, had the slightly more successful career: becoming the first to reach a Grand Slam final here in 2001 and winning the Tour championships last year by defeating Serena Williams, the world's No. 1 player.

But Henin-Hardenne was the one who disposed of Williams in this tournament, beating her in three sets in a nervy, contentious semifinal, and while Henin-Hardenne's nerves have been suspect in big matches in the past, that label no longer fits.

Despite a fitful night's sleep, she was more focussed, consistent and positive than Clijsters, who had a 7-3 edge on her in Tour events coming into the final.

"I'm feeling very comfortable and very secure, and it's so important for my tennis," said Henin-Hardenne, who married Pierre-Yves Hardenne in November. "When I go on court, I'm not anymore afraid to lose."

Henin-Hardenne required only 26 minutes to win the first set, but it could have been very different. In her first two service games, Henin-Hardenne trailed by 0-40, but on both occasions she erased those deficits with bold shot-making and held serve.

Serving at 0-4, 40-30, Clijsters hit a too-firm backhand drop shot that Henin-Hardenne reached with ease and swatted for a winner. On the next point, Clijsters hit another ill-timed drop shot that hit the net. She then double-faulted to fall behind by 0-5.

If Henin-Hardenne was feeling any nagging doubts, that game must have been very reassuring, and she closed out the set with a cool backhand drop-shot winner. But Clijsters stopped the humiliation by holding serve in the first game of the second set, with her Australian boyfriend, Lleyton Hewitt, the world's No. 1 men's player, encouraging her from the stands.

But she then lost the next three games. There was only one stage when the match appeared capable of changing course. That came in the eighth game of the second set, when Clijsters broke Henin-Hardenne's serve at love to tie it at 4-4. But in the following game, Henin-Hardenne played more aggressively and more inside the baseline, hitting two forehand winners and a backhand winner to break Clijsters and regain control.

Henin-Hardenne's defining stroke has long been her one-handed backhand, which many tennis mavens, including John McEnroe, maintain is the most gorgeous shot in the women's game. But the key to her improved results this year has been her more convincing forehand, and it was, in retrospect, a warning sign for the rest of the women's field when she said recently that she considered her forehand to be better than her backhand. She is also serving more authoritatively, but what also made the difference against Clijsters was her greater ease in all sections of the court.

Henin-Hardenne, who reached the Wimbledon final in 2001, is a tremendous natural athlete with flowing footwork. You could just as easily imagine her excelling in basketball or soccer. And though Clijsters, the daughter of the former Belgian soccer star Leo Clijsters, is unquestionably the more powerful athlete, she can appear mechanical in transition and at the net.

Henin-Hardenne has a more seamless style, and she won 13 of 14 points at the net, helped along by Clijsters' ineffectual drop shots. All in all, it was a radically different match from the one they played here in the 2001 semifinals.

She was still Justine Henin then, still fragile on the big points. But she had ample reason to be fragile, having become estranged from her father after she resisted his approach to managing her.

Her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, and husband were in the front row. And when Clijsters's final shot of the tournament — a forehand — hit the tape and bounced back on her side of the net, the two men were locked in an embrace. After Henin-Hardenne embraced her friendly rival at the net, she was soon up in the stands alongside them.