Henin-Hardenne digs deep, stops Clijsters for Open title

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - No. 2 seed Justine Henin-Hardenne wore a two-piece white and blue outfit last night and, when she walked into Arthur Ashe Stadium, looked like any ordinary tennis player.

No one peeked under her shirt, but if they had, they might have found a Wonder Woman costume or, if not that, at least an oversized heart.

Only the night before, the slight and willowy Henin-Hardenne had played a 3-hour 3-minute match against No. 6 seed Jennifer Capriati to make it into this U.S. Open final.

And that match had not been ordinary. It had been a mental and physical struggle, the best match at this Open on either the women's or men's side.

And when it was over, she had a cramping left thigh and was in desperate need of fluids. She received them intravenously until 2:40 a.m., when officials said she was questionable for the final.

But she still managed a 7-5, 6-1 shocker over No. 1 seed Kim Clijsters last night.

"I can just tell you, I'm the happiest woman in the world right now," Henin-Hardenne said. "It's just such a great moment. I always thought the first Grand Slam would be the most important one, but what I did last night was simply great and to come back and do this tonight, I just feel so wonderful."

It was a battle between two Belgians, two friends. And though Clijsters is the No. 1 player in the world and Henin-Hardenne is now No. 2, the J.P Morgan representative who presented Henin-Hardenne with her winner's check for $1 million, called her "Christine" instead of Justine.

"It's unbelievable," Henin-Hardenne told the crowd, graciously ignoring the gaff. "To have played that match against Jennifer last night, I didn't know how I was going to play tonight."

She had 18 winners to Clijsters' 12; 20 unforced errors to Clijsters' 40. And she was six of eight on break-point chances, while Clijsters was two for eight.

"The strength of Justine's game is her movement and she makes you go for a lot of things," said Clijsters, who remains the only woman to be ranked No. 1 without having a Grand Slam title.

"Today, I didn't think I played at the level I played the previous six matches, but today I played the best one in the whole tournament."

Clijsters came from 4-1 down in the first set but, at 5-5, Henin-Hardenne broke her again and then served out the set.

In the second set, when Henin-Hardenne burst ahead 4-0, Clijsters found that, for every brilliant shot she hit, Henin-Hardenne had an answer.

Henin-Hardenne simply left everyone breathless and, at the end, burst into a broad smile as she celebrated her first U.S. Open championship.

It was Henin-Hardenne's second Grand Slam championship this season. She also won the French by beating Clijsters in straight sets and is now 0-4 in their rivalry.

Here at the Open, the 21-year-old had never made it further than the fourth round in four previous tries.

"A year ago," she said. "I could not have won these matches. I am a different player now because of my experiences and my hard work. Because of my husband and my coach, they give me so much support it is unbelievable.

"This morning, I knew, I guess, that I would play tonight, but I didn't know how. I went to bed at about 3:45 a.m. and I was awake at 8:30. I tried to sleep to 11:30, but it was hard because the [Capriati] match was in my mind and at the same time, I knew I had to get ready for the final."

Her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, told her she had to believe in her chances and, when she went on court, she believed fully.

"Getting through the third set Friday night, when I was cramping and couldn't think and believed the match was going to be over so many times, to come through that, to change the outcome, it was an amazing feeling," she said.

"So when I came here tonight, I wasn't going to let go of this match. I was feeling very tired, but when you are going to play a Grand Slam final, I mean, you cannot be tired. You have to give your best."

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