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Tennis

Breakout triumph with mom in mind

Justine Henin-Hardenne wins her first Grand Slam at French Open, which she dreamed of conquering when at age 10 she attended the event with her mother.

By Associated Press
Published June 8, 2003

PARIS - Justine Henin-Hardenne won the French Open for Belgium, her husband and her coach.

She won it for all the players who rely more on precision than power.

Mostly, though, she won it for her late mother, who brought a 10-year-old Justine to Roland Garros to watch a match in person for the first time.

In that same stadium Saturday, Henin-Hardenne dominated countrywoman Kim Clijsters from the start for a 6-0, 6-4 victory. She won the first Grand Slam title of her career and the first for the neighboring nation of 10-million.

"I would like to dedicate this victory to my mother, who is watching over me in heaven. I hope you are very proud of me, Mother," Henin-Hardenne said. "She gave me all the energy I needed to win the match. When I woke up this morning, I said, "You'll have to win. You'll have to do it for your mom.' "

After four straight all-Williams major finals, this was the first all-Belgian major final. King Albert and Queen Paola of Belgium sat in the front row, and Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt made the 125-mile trip from Brussels.

While warming up, Henin-Hardenne stole a glance at the seats where she sat with Mom when her favorite player, Steffi Graf, lost to Monica Seles in the 1992 final. Her mother, Francoise, died of cancer nine years ago.

"It was the first tournament I went to. It was just amazing. I was a little girl who was coming to see her idols," said Henin-Hardenne, who is estranged from her father.

"I said, "One day, I'll be on this court, and maybe I'll win.' And today I did."

And she produced the most lopsided French Open women's final since Graf's 6-0, 6-0 win over Natasha Zvereva in 1988.

Henin-Hardenne has been on the wrong end of that sort of score, losing the 2001 Wimbledon final to Venus Williams 6-0 in the third set. She faltered in the late stages of other Grand Slams, too, eliminated in the semifinals three times, including at the 2001 French Open. She blew a 6-2, 4-2 lead against Clijsters that day, but Henin-Hardenne is mentally stronger now.

"Justine is a very emotional person; today was a very big test," said Carlos Rodriguez, her coach since she was 14. "Now I see a girl who is confident of her potential, and I know she can go further."

When Clijsters' forehand hit the net on match point, Henin-Hardenne tossed her racket, looked up to the sky and covered her face.

After embracing Clijsters, she walked off the court. She reappeared in the guest box for a TV interview before wading through a crowd to hug her husband of seven months and Rodriguez. Later, Henin-Hardenne called the title "great for my career, but it's not everything in life," adding: "I have people that I love around me, and that's the most important thing."

She dictated points by placing groundstrokes where she wanted them, often in the corners. Henin-Hardenne long has had the smoothest backhand in women's tennis, and her forehand was as effective.

"Justine just didn't give me anything for free," said Clijsters, who plays in the doubles final today, her 20th birthday. "I hope I can get another chance."

Despite the score, she had several chances against Henin-Hardenne. Clijsters held six break points in the first set, converting none.

Then, trailing 3-2 in the second set, Clijsters had two break points, but ceded the game with five errant shots. One was particularly ugly: A sky hook that landed in the middle of the net.

She broke serve to get to 4-4 in the second set, and Henin-Hardenne briefly thought about what happened here in 2001. It also riled up a crowd filled with Belgians looking for any excuse to make noise. Clijsters hopped at the baseline, while her boyfriend, Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt, clapped.

The intrigue lasted all of three minutes, the time it took Henin-Hardenne to break back with a forehand winner off a short backhand slice by Clijsters, who lost the 2001 French final to Jennifer Capriati.

A year ago at Roland Garros, a qualifier upset Henin-Hardenne in the first round. She was more resilient this year, beating No. 19 Patty Schnyder, No. 8 Chanda Rubin and No. 1 Serena Williams.

By backing up her semifinal upset of Williams with a win over another hard hitter, No. 2 Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne became the ninth to beat players ranked Nos. 1 and 2 at a major since computer rankings began in 1975.

Proud to be the first Belgian major champion, the 5-foot-5, 125-pound Henin-Hardenne, seeded fourth, was pleased to show size does not necessarily matter.

"It's good to believe that power is not everything, that we can play with other things. I have to play differently from the other players," she said. "I'm not so tall, I'm not so strong, but I can win."

AMERICANS WIN: Twins Bob and Mike Bryan won their first Grand Slam title in men's doubles, beating defending champions Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Paul Haarhuis 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 at Roland Garros.

"This is a dream come true for us," Mike said. "We've been working since we were 2 years old on the courts. Now to come out here and be on this stage is just the biggest moment in our lives."

[Last modified June 8, 2003, 01:33:29]

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