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Henin-Hardenne: simply the champ


PARIS -- She doesn't model for fashion magazines between tournaments and doesn't accessorize on the job.

But Justine Henin-Hardenne proved with her 26th title yesterday, at the French Open, that, for her, fundamental and basic works just fine.

On a warm and windy afternoon when she didn't play her best tennis and Svetlana Kuznetsova played much worse, the 5-foot-5 Belgian with the feet that fairly dance around the court needed only 1 hour, 36 minutes to win, 6-4, 6-4, to become the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1995-1996 to win back-to-back championships here.

This triumph won't be memorable for the play, which produced 33 winners, 68 unforced errors and no spectacular shot-making. But it was historically significant.

Henin-Hardenne swept through the draw to win her third French without either losing a set or being pushed to a tiebreak, and that hasn't been accomplished at this most demanding of majors since Chris Evert won in 1974.

She did it the way she has been winning since she turned pro in 1999 - with hard work, intelligent shot selection and absolutely nothing that would appeal to the paparazzi.

"I'm very different from a lot of players, and that's good to have different kinds of personalities and styles in women's tennis. But, for me, what I love in the life I have is just to be on the court and fight on the court and push my limits," she said.

"The other things, I'm not interested in," she said in a reference to Serena Williams' movie and TV appearances and Maria Sharapova's photo shoots.

There were only a few tense moments in this final for the champion, when Kuznetsova won the first 10 points of the second set and when Henin-Hardenne fell into one of those brief defensive modes where her shots went short.

But those tenuous times only reinforce her joy for the game. "I'm playing tennis because of these very close situations," she explained. "Today, this tightness, when you're nervous on the crucial points, on break points ... that's what I love."

Kuznetsova had moments in both sets where her strong, flat shots dictated the course of the rallies, but she never sustained them enough to win more than two breaks, and she seemed surprised that Henin-Hardenne didn't wallop the ball as hard as she normally does.

"I didn't expect the ball would come so easy. ... I had so many chances to go forward and play my forehand, and I was overdoing it," she said.

Henin-Hardenne has now won at the French, the U.S. Open and Australian Open, and reached the final at Wimbledon in 2001. A title at the fourth Slam is now a major goal on her to-do list, and she'll begin working on it in two weeks on the grass at Eastbourne.

Charles Bricker writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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