| Lleyton Hewitt watches girlfriend Kim Clijsters during the women’s final on Saturday. (Reuters)
Justine Henin-Hardenne looked pale and frail on the medical training table in the early morning hours at the US Open on Saturday. The blankets kept her legs warm, and intravenous fluids were taking care of her dehydration after serious cramping.
By Saturday night, that arm was holding a shiny trophy after the legs had carried the second-seeded Henin-Hardenne to a 7-5, 6-1 victory over No. 1 Kim Clijsters in the first all-Belgian final at the US Open. It was a repeat of their French Open final, which Henin-Hardenne also won in straight sets.
Rarely was a transformation so swift and so complete. “I don’t know how I’m gonna celebrate, but I just can tell you that I’m the happiest woman in the world right now,” said Henin-Hardenne.
That was hardly the atmosphere in her camp not long after her remarkable three-set semi-final victory over Jennifer Capriati. Her worried husband, Pierre-Yves, lingered nearby when two reporters spoke with her around 1.45 am on Saturday.
But Henin-Hardenne has an amazing will. Her voice was firm, her words direct when asked whether she could play in the final: “I’ll try to do my best.”
Clijsters, who has been on the receiving end of that vaunted willpower, found out again first-hand. She looked like the one who had been physically questionable, losing the first three games in seven minutes. But Clijsters started to work her way into the match and had two set-points in the 10th game of the first set. Henin-Hardenne, serving at 4-5, saved both, one with an ace and the second when Clijsters hit a backhand long.
“These kind of matches, I couldn’t finish that one year ago,” Henin-Hardenne said. “I just try to build my career. Maybe I arrived a little bit later from the other players, but winning two Grand Slams at 21, I think it’s great. And it gives me a lot of confidence for the rest of my career.”
Clijsters has become something of a paper No. 1. She has been in three Grand Slam tournament finals, two this year, and has yet to win her first major. Henin-Hardenne has won four of their last five matches. “Although it’s very disappointing to have lost here, I felt like today, Justine just was too strong again, had an answer for a lot of my shots,” said Clijsters, who had not dropped a set before the final but had 40 unforced errors Saturday.
Henin-Hardenne was the one who used to face the questions about an inability to close out matches. But she has given herself a huge psychological boost by getting fitter. “When you feel strong, your mind goes forward,” her coach Carlos Rodriquez said.
No matter if it was a wet court, a reluctant referee, a cramping left leg or facing two of the finest baseliners in the world in Capriati and Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne remained resolute. She convinced tournament referee Brian Earley to let one of her matches proceed on a damp court. One French reporter joked that she would play in a pool if necessary.
But Henin-Hardenne won’t repeat one mistake. She did not call for a trainer during the Capriati match because she had been criticised for doing so in the past, most recently by Clijsters. “I did a big mistake because I was cramping a lot,” Henin-Hardenne said.
“I could have a serious injury. Everybody was so upset with myself that I didn’t call the trainer. But it’s true that I said to myself, ‘People are gonna talk about my attitude again.’ I’m a fair player. I know that now when I need the trainer, I’ll call them.”
This being the Open, something off-putting happened during the trophy ceremony. J.P. Morgan Chase chief executive Bill Harrison mistakenly called her “Christine” when he summoned Henin-Hardenne to receive the trophy and $1 million prize. She smiled, and her entourage had a good long laugh.
“Maybe when you come from a little country, like Kim or me, you want to prove to the rest of the world that you can do great things from a little country,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. Maybe it means the French Open wasn’t an accident.”