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Henin-Hardenne, Pierce sail into women's final


PARIS - If people thought the women's semifinals at last year's French Open were tedious, yesterday's weak offerings made them look downright competitive.

Nadia Petrova of Russia won only five games against Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium in the first semifinal, and Elena Likhovtseva of Russia came away with two in the second semifinal against Mary Pierce of France.

Henin-Hardenne, about as close to a native as one can get without having been born in France, was boosted by strong crowd support from traveling Belgian fans. And although Pierce, 30, was born in Canada and now lives in Florida, the public has long since accepted her as French.

The score line: The 10th-seeded Henin-Hardenne defeated No. 7 Petrova, 6-2, 6-3, in 68 minutes, and Pierce beat Likhovtseva, 6-1, 6-1, in 58 minutes, facing only two break points.

Tomorrow, Pierce will be trying to win her second French Open title and third Grand Slam, having won here in 2000 and at the Australian Open in 1995.

The last 30-year-old to reach the French Open final was Martina Navratilova in 1987. Steffi Graf beat her, 6-4, 4-6, 8-6.

Henin-Hardenne, who turned 23 on Wednesday, is on a three-tournament, 23-match winning streak on clay, the longest on clay since Graf went 32-0 in 1987. The other significant women's mark on clay in the past 20 years was 22-0 by Monica Seles on her way to the French title in 1990.

"I love it," Henin-Hardenne said of clay. "I know the other players don't like to play me on a clay court, and I really enjoy this kind of situation."

She smiled when she said that and it was almost like Martina Hingis in her day, grinning the Chucky-doll smile after slicing up opponents with clever shots.

In three matches, Pierce has never won so much as a set against Henin-Hardenne. In their most recent meeting, Henin-Hardenne won, 6-4, 6-4, in the quarterfinals at the Olympics in Athens last summer. Henin-Hardenne will be appearing in her fourth Grand Slam final, Pierce her fifth.

Henin-Hardenne won here in 2003 but a debilitating virus kept her out for most of 2004, so she often speaks about a new appreciation for her current position in the sport.

Pierce also has a new perspective on her career and life. After winning here in 2000, her tennis stalled because of injuries, including a back problem that raised questions about possible retirement.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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