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Henin-Hardenne rolls to women's title


PARIS - The French Open could almost serve as a family album for Justine Henin-Hardenne, the ideal way to record snapshot memories and trace her remarkable development.

She's gone from a slight, solemn teenager who fell apart serving for the match in the third set in the second round against Lindsay Davenport in 1999 to a strong, self-possessed woman who won her second French Open and fourth Grand Slam singles title yesterday.

It was a ruthless display of efficiency, blending power and guile, and the combination drove her opponent to tears during the trophy ceremony. No. 10 seed Henin-Hardenne, of Belgium, needed only 62 minutes to dismiss 30-year-old Mary Pierce of France, 6-1, 6-1, and extend her winning streak on clay courts to 24 matches.

"I'm not at my best. I think I can do better," said Henin-Hardenne, who was hampered by a sore back and hamstring. "But I think I enjoy probably more my game than before the illness, so that's the biggest key. I enjoy every moment I'm on the court. Every ball I hit, it's with my heart."

In 2004, she lost in the second round here, a mere shadow of a defending champion, suffering from a career-threatening virus.

Yesterday's result was the most one-sided in the French Open women's final since Steffi Graf defeated Natasha Zvereva, 6-0, 6-0, in 1988. Unfortunately, it was another women's final lacking in suspense. Last year, Anastasia Myskina of Russia lost three games against her countrywoman Elena Dementieva.

Last year, Dementieva broke down in tears when asked about her weak serve. The toughest moment for Pierce was when she had to make a speech after the final.

She took in long, deep breaths, looking miserable, and it was painful to watch Pierce try to stave off the tears.

"At that moment, it was very strong - too strong," Pierce said. "After all my work during the past year, it was mixed emotions. It was being sad and disappointed because I lost and played a bad match."

Give her points for accuracy. It went from bad to worse for Pierce after she won the opening game. It would take her until the 46-minute mark to win her second game. Pierce said she wasn't nervous, though a handful of botched shots suggested otherwise. One easy smash went straight into the bottom of the net in the second set.

Henin-Hardenne had something to do with it. She never dropped serve and faced one break point. She improved as the tournament progressed, not dropping a set in her final three matches after surviving two match points in the fourth round against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia.

Her longtime mentor and coach, Carlos Rodriguez, said he had mentally packed his bags when Kuznetsova held the match points. "I'm thinking we go home," he said. "I'm very realistic. Kuznetsova says, 'I gave the match to Justine.' I say, 'Justine, say thank you to her.'"

Rodriguez has been perhaps the most important influence in her life, providing a steadying influence and emotional base.

What helped turn Henin-Hardenne's career around, among other things, was a discussion after the 2003 Australian Open. She reached the semifinals, losing, 6-3, 6-3, to Venus Williams, and Rodriguez was not pleased, saying, "It was no match."

Time for some straight talk.

"I say, 'Look, it depends on what you want to do. You have everything, the body and the game to do more than that,'" he said. "'It's up to you. What do you want to be? A good player? A champion, Justine Henin-Hardenne?' She told me, 'I don't understand.'

"Graf, [Chris] Evert, [Martina] Navratilova, you say the name and that's it, everybody understands. Inside of her, very deep, she wants to try to do the same thing with her name."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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