Emotional Henin-Hardenne wins French Open

Justine Henin-Hardenne beat a visibly nervous Mary Pierce 6-1, 6-1 on Saturday to win the French Open, capping a remarkable comeback from a blood virus with her fourth grand-slam title and her second at Roland Garros.

It was the most lopsided major final since Steffi Graf beat Natasha Zvereva 6-0, 6-0 to win the French Open in 1988.

Henin-Hardenne won 14 consecutive points early and swept nine games in a row in her first major event since returning from a seven-month layoff. The energy-sapping virus left her bed-ridden last year, but since returning in March, she’s 27-1 and has won 24 consecutive matches, all on clay.

The 10th-seeded Belgian also won the 2003 Roland Garros title.

“It’s a lot of emotion for me,” a smiling Henin-Hardenne said in French during the trophy ceremony. “I lived through very difficult moments last year.
This fills me with happiness.”

The 21st-seeded Pierce, a Frenchwoman staging a career comeback herself by reaching her first major final since winning the French Open in 2000, was unnerved by the occasion. Afterward, she took several deep breaths and fought back tears when she addressed the crowd.

“Excuse me. It’s very difficult to speak right now,” she said in French. “I’m sad because I lost. I wanted to play a better match. I’m sorry it didn’t last very long.”

The flat groundstrokes that landed on the line in her previous two wins, including a quarterfinal victory over top-ranked Lindsay Davenport, this time sailed just long or wide. Pierce also hit many ugly shots, shanking easy volleys, blowing overheads and sending mis-hit groundstrokes looping short or wildly off the court.

The centre-court crowd included the prince and prime minister of Belgium, but most fans cheered in support of the struggling Pierce.

They occasionally groaned as her mistakes mounted, and at least once there were whistles jeering her shaky performance.

Pierce tried running in place to calm her nerves. Rain twice fell briefly, but not hard enough to rescue her with a delay.

Whenever she appeared on the verge of finding her form, Henin-Hardenne squelched the momentum. The Belgian put away consecutive winners in the next-to-last game before Pierce hit her sixth double-fault to make it 5-1.

One last error by Pierce—her 29th with a backhand into the net—gave Henin-Hardenne the victory in 62 minutes.

Pierce held serve in the opening game, but Henin-Hardenne won the next three games at love.

On back-to-back points Pierce blew a forehand sitter, then shanked an overhead.

Sometimes even Pierce’s best wasn’t good enough. In one sequence, she dug out a low ball, then made a lunging volley, but still lost the point.

The agile Henin-Hardenne made several defensive saves to sustain rallies and picked her spots to turn aggressive. A forehand winner put her up 4-1 in the first set, and another that kissed the sideline made it 5-1.

Pierce double-faulted to end the first set, which lasted just 24 minutes. She won only 10 points.

Perhaps her ugliest shot came early in the second set, when she dumped an easy overhead into the net at her feet. Henin-Hardenne won the next point for a 2-0 lead in the set, and it was 3-0 before Pierce managed to hold serve.

That was the last game she won.

On her way to the final, Henin-Hardenne beat United States Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova on consecutive days. She overcame two match points against Kuznetsova, which makes her the second woman in the Open era to save a match point en route to the Roland Garros title.

Last year’s champion, Anastasia Myskina, also did it.

Henin-Hardenne’s winning streak on clay is the longest by a woman since Conchita Martinez won 27 matches in a row in 1994/95.

She earned €867 000 (R7,2-million), while Pierce received €433 500 (R3,6-million).—Sapa-AP

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