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Justine succeeds where Hingis failed

Paris: Twelve months ago Martina Hingis played the final match of a career that earned her five Grand Slam titles and the No. 1 tag for three years. She was 22. Last weekend Justine Henin-Hardenne reached No. 1 after winning the French Open and the US Open. She is 21.

Both are slight, but whereas Hingis, plagued by an ankle injury, appeared to give up in the face of new power-hitters, Henin-Hardenne has adapted her game, her body and her mind to the challenge.

After finding tennis oh-so-easy in 1997 and 1998, Hingis was blown off course and increasingly off the court by Venus Williams. The Swiss won her last Slam in Australia early 1999 and when Serena “arrived” at the end of 2001, Hingis suddenly became an anachronism in women’s tennis.

Her clever, chess-like approach could not withstand the Williams sisters’ cudgelling from both sides of the court and, as her legs gave her increasing problems, she was unable to change her game.

At Wimbledon in 2001, Hingis lost in the first round for the second time in three years. Venus Williams, the defending champion, charged into the final where she met Henin-Hardenne, very much a surprise finalist.

No one could miss the obvious physical disparity between the two and Henin-Hardenne, after recovering from losing the first set 1-6 to win the second, ran out of strength in the third to go down 0-6.

Unlike Hingis, the Belgian decided that if you can’t beat them, you should try and join them. Over the past two years she has made herself more able to slug it out from the baseline for long periods and in the build-up to this season she worked in Florida with Pete Sampras’ former trainer Pat Etcheberry. This season she has been a revelation, physically at her peak as she showed at Roland Garros by defeating Serena Williams in the semi-final and fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters in the final.

Serena took her revenge in the Wimbledon semis before beating her sister in the final. With both Williamses absent through injury at Flushing Meadows, Henin-Hardenne won the title by beating Clijsters in the final again.

“I’m not afraid any more about the power of the other players because I’m powerful too. I think that everybody knows it right now,” she said.

Whereas there were always question marks over Hingis’ mental strength after her tantrums at the French Open and Wimbledon in 1999, Henin-Hardenne’s has never been in doubt.

No stranger to personal difficulties and tragedy as a child, she has the look of a warrior and never gives up, an aspect of her personality which seems to spook Clijsters in particular.

Henin-Hardenne’s recovery to win the US Open final, after being put on a drip after her exhausting semi-final defeat of Jennifer Capriati, was one of the feats of the sporting year.

The Belgian is also strengthened by the support and advice she gets from the small entourage of her husband Pierre-Yves and her coach Carlos Rodriguez.

But while Henin-Hardenne basks in being No. 1, she will be rated the best player in the world only when she beats Venus and particularly Serena on a regular basis.

(Reuters)

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