Saturday, June 10, 2006

Henin-Hardenne wins third French Open in four years

By Jared Trexler

Brought to Roland Garros for the first time as a kid and tennis novice, Justine Henin-Hardenne continued to live her childhood dream by winning her third French Open title in four years with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over eighth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova.

"I take everything I can. It's a bonus for me. I didn't believe one day I could win three times here," said Henin-Hardenne. "Now everything is a plus. It's great."

Before the fifth-seeded Belgian served for the championship, loud cheers rained from supporters and the crowd began the wave. Henin-Hardenne then closed out the match, tossing her racket in the air as Kuznetsova's forehand sailed long.

With the victory, Henin-Hardenne became just the sixth woman in the Open Era to hoist the trophy at Roland Garros at least three times and first to repeat since legendary Steffi Graf in 1996. She steamrolled through the field, never dropping a set and posting her 14th consecutive victory on Roland Garros' red clay.

"I'm very happy the way it went this week. Winning here for the third time means maybe more than the fifth Grand Slam for me, I mean, because it's physically and mentally very hard on clay," said Henin-Hardenne. "I've been very calm during the whole tournament, even if I never really played my best tennis. I played very well on the crucial points, and today again. So I'm very, very happy the way it goes right now."

Henin-Hardenne defeated countrywoman Kim Clijsters to capture her first French Open title in 2003 then beat France's Mary Pierce in last year's championship match. To pick up her third championship and defend her title, Henin-Hardenne had to get through the talented Russian, who burst on to the national tennis scene by winning the 2004 U.S. Open.

The 24-year-old Henin-Hardenne improved to 11-1 lifetime versus Kuznetsova, including a perfect 4-0 in Grand Slams. However, the straight-set victory did not do an entertaining and extremely competitive final justice.

Henin-Hardenne's early strategy of hitting all returns to the center of the court paid dividends. A seven-minute first game led to an early break, as the excited Belgian sprinted to her chair with the edge.

After three straight holds, Henin-Hardenne attacked the Russian's serve once again. A beautiful forehand placed behind a slipping Kuznetsova gave the fifth seed double-break point and she converted for a 4-1 advantage.

Kuznetsova refused to go quietly, losing one break opportunity before closing out the game moments later to get back into the set. After holding for a 4-3 deficit, the 2004 U.S. Open champion sapped into the current momentum to again put Henin-Hardenne on the ropes.
However, showing her familiarity and superiority on clay, Henin-Hardenne pounded ground stroke after ground stroke while waiting for Kuznetsova to make an unforced error. Kuznetsova lost a golden opportunity for a break when she dumped an overhead volley into the middle of the net.

Kuznetsova then held serve and found herself at 30-30 as Henin-Hardenne served for the set. A 114-mph serve that hugged the chalk and a powerful forehand out wide capped the game and the set for the defending champion.

The start of the second set was a total reserve from the match's opening minutes. Kuznetsova held at love then dominated on Henin-Hardenne's serve, breaking the Belgian in four quick points for a 2-0 lead.

"I was 2-0, 30-Love, and I felt like I'm in control, same as I was in the end of the first set," said Kuznetsova. "Then you just miss two balls and then you lose your chance, you know. You let her come back to the match. And if you keep losing, keep missing, you know, you keep letting her back, it's not possible to win. So I think that was the key."

After looking sluggish in the first two games, Henin-Hardenne picked up a second wind and hit a sterling winner to get back on serve at 1-2. Henin- Hardenne then held serve, and Kuznetsova withstood four deuce games to take a 3-2 lead.

Henin-Hardenne overcame a deuce game to square the set then took a huge step toward capturing the championship. Three well-orchestrated points capped by a forehand behind Kuznetsova opened a 0-40 lead, and a lob smash at 15-40 gave the Belgian the break and a 4-3 edge. Both players held serve, setting the stage for the Belgian to serve for the title.

When the Russian's return sailed long, Henin-Hardenne captured her third title of 2006 and 26th crown of her career. Kuznetsova fell to 1-2 in '06 title bouts, with the lone victory coming at the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami back in April.

Henin-Hardenne collected $1.189 million for the victory, while Kuznetsova took home $587,000.

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