Henin rallies to beat Sharapova

Justin Henin finished the toughest season of her career with one of her toughest victories.

That’s exactly how she would have scripted it.

Henin rallied to beat Maria Sharapova 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 on Sunday in the longest three-set final in the tournament’s history. It was also the top-ranked Belgian’s longest match at a tournament-record three hours, 24 minutes.

Henin became the sixth player to defend her season-ending championship when Sharapova netted her fifth match point.

“I can’t say I played 100% but I kept fighting a lot. I played with my heart today,” Henin said.
“I had to find the resources, mentally and physically, but I think it’s a match everyone will remember. It’s not a match I’m ready to forget.”

Henin won her 25th straight match to close the season with a 63-4 mark that included a fourth French Open title and her second United States Open trophy. Steffi Graf was the last player—in 1996—to win those three titles in the same year.

She also tied Graf—who closed 1989 with 38 straight wins after falling in the French Open final—by finishing the season unbeaten after her semifinal loss at Wimbledon.

Her 39th career title also made her the first female player to surpass $5-million in winnings in a season.

Not bad considering the 25-year-old Belgian missed the entire month of January—and the Australian Open—to handle her divorce.

“I think I can still improve a lot,” Henin said. “I have to keep improving my aggressive game, move forward, take my opportunities. I wasn’t in Australia this year and I hope to take my revenge there in a few weeks.”

Henin saved five of Sharapova’s six break chances in the final set—and 14 of 18 overall—for her 10th title of 2007, making her the first player since Martina Hingis in 1997 to record double-digit victories in a season.

The $1-million prize money also means Henin surpassed Kim Clijsters to set a season earnings mark of $5 367 086.

Sharapova, who came into the tournament after about a two-month lay-off due to a shoulder injury, took the first set after pouncing on Henin’s awkward serve. She finally broke in the 12th game on her eighth set-point.

Henin had four of her eight double-faults in the game and spoiled two chances to send it to a tiebreaker with long shots.

“I was feeling frustrated at that time,” Henin said. “I had my chances and I couldn’t convert them.”

Henin played more aggressively out of the second set with three break chances before netting Sharapova’s shot as the Russian held.

“I thought she would crack a little bit—physically too—and I sensed that she was nervous as well,” Henin said.

Sharapova, playing from the back for much of the match, rallied in the third set after Henin broke in the third game to take a 2-1 lead.

The sixth-ranked Russian, who needed to take a nasal decongestant prior to the sixth game, broke back to make it 3-3. But Henin, who was continually moving to and from the net, broke right back.

“It’s been a pretty rough year for me with all of these injuries, one after another,” said the 20-year-old Russian, who dropped to 1-2 in finals in 2007.

Henin, who beat number four Ana Ivanovic in the semifinals, improved to 21-1 against top-10 players this year.

“It’s an honour to play against her,” said Sharapova, who the championship in her debut in 2004. “I hope we can play a few more times. I hope I can get my revenge a few more times.”

Amelie Mauresmo’s 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-4 win over Mary Pierce in 2005 was the previous longest final at three hours and six minutes.

Henin’s win marks the end of a two-year spell for the WTA tournament in Madrid. It will be played in Doha, Qatar, through 2010 before a three-year stint in Istanbul, Turkey. - Sapa-AP

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