No, those aren’t flames we’re seeing from the summer wild fires that often plague Australia at this time of year. They’re flames of wrath and rebuke, aimed this morning at Justine Henin-Hardenne for her dismal performance last night in the Australian Open Women’s Final. She’s getting it up one side of Australia and down the other, probably in a lot of other places too. Wherever people still love and follow tennis. And deservedly so. Last night was one of the more shocking incidents to occur in a while in a major final. And sickening.

For those of you recently returned from living in a yurt in outer Mongolia, here’s what happened. The women’s final was in the second set. Amelie Mauresmo had won the first with a powerful display of shot making and steady serving. She outplayed Justine Henin-Hardenne every which way, and every sign indicated there was plenty more to come. Henin-Hardenne was on her way to becoming the proverbial deer in the headlights.

Why, it’s enough to make a girl sick right there. Amazingly, that’s what happened. Justine summoned the trainer AND the doctor when she was trailing 2-0. Gee, this must be serious. Both of them are out there. This must be major major. But they didn’t ice her, they didn’t wrap her. Not even a Tums changed hands. And that’s all it took. A Tums. Justine claimed she had an upset stomach. No way could she continue.

The crowd was stunned. Amelie looked perplexed. She should have felt victorious, but instead it was rudely snatched away from her. We all felt, along with Mauresmo, that we had collectively been kicked in the stomach. So call the trainer for us, for God’s sake.

Mauresmo, concerned and gracious as always, walked over to console Henin-Hardenne, who sat there toweling herself. It was nasty to see how HH didn’t even seem interested in acknowledging her, or even making eye contact.

Does this woman have manners or what?

The guys and girls in the commentary booths landed on HH en masse. Brad Gilbert: “I feel robbed.”
Mary Carillo: “Such a sullen way to end it.”

Suddenly, Nicolas Kiefer is starting to look like one of the Good Guys. Eecch, what a mouse!

The internet is humming today with a steady wave of criticism. People from Belgium are chiming in, remembering how Henin-Hardenne has shown herself even at home to be less than charming on many occasions.

There is talk about a fine being levied, why not think about yanking that rather large purse Justine received, of around $600, 000, for basically not even throwing up on court. Take that money and refund the people who paid over a hundred bucks easily to see this can of worms. In Italy the fans would probably have rioted by now.

Too bad the Baghdatis contingent wasn’t there, they could have given a massive raspberry to HH. They’ve been witness to one of the most amazing male runs ever at this year’s Open by Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus. This guy has summoned up every resource he has, and we presume all those within fifty miles of him. He’s fought his way back from everything. Would he cave for a prissy stomach? Hell, a broken leg probably wouldn’t stop him. Henin-Hardenne’s big dive makes her appear pretty despicable alongside his fighting spirit.

Other unfortunate comparisons spring to mind. Of Pete Sampras hurling his stomach contents in the ’96 US Open, and going on to win the match. Of Andre Agassi getting whipped by Jarkko Nieminen in a match last year, but not caving and hanging on to let his opponent win fairly and squarely. Justine Henin-Hardenne refused to give Amelie Mauresmo that chance.

Already the chorus is adding this refrain to the fray: why should women get equal prize money when clinkers like this occur? Why should they indeed. Thanks, Justine, for such a lovely ripple effect you’ve created.

Well, now that some of this bile is out of our systems, let’s talk about what was great in this match. Amelie was great. Amelie delivered, and the luster of her achievement will not be diminished by the stupidity of HH. Of course she was lucky, I said that in the earlier column. But she was ready to seize upon her good fortune and make the match hers.

She played the match perfectly, and followed some advice Brad Gilbert suggested at the start: Keep the ball high around Justine’s shoulders, throw her off and force her to take risks, then get ready for the backhand up the line when she saw her chances. Amelie worked this perfectly in the first set.

The rallies were long, deep and suspenseful, Amelie gave every sign of being very steady and consistent today. Justine was too, so it looked like a great match was shaping up. But then Justine seemed to grow antsy or impatient that she couldn’t dominate Mauresmo, and she started to pull the trigger a bit early on her shots. Balls started to fly, along with the score. Justine meekly netted a forehand service return and the first set was gone, 6-1.

Surely everyone expected Justine to fight her way back, as she has done many times in matches. But the Mauresmo power train continued, she was up 2-0 when Henin-Hardenne saw the writing on the wall and called for the medical time-out. She attempted to play the next two points, then called it quits.

It looked for all the world like Justine saw a bagel in her future, and she wasn’t going to let herself go there. So what if you deprive a worthy opponent of her finest moment ever in a tournament? It’s Justine against the world, that’s all that matters. It pretty much become her personal mantra in the press conference following the match. I have to think about myself, she kept saying.

Good for you, honey, it’s good you care about something in this world. Your victories in future – and yes, we know you’ll have them – will be looked at in a new light now. Your entire position within the tennis community is going to be looked at from now on in a new light.

You’re the Richard Nixon of the tennis world right now, lucky little girl. Yes yes, we know all about how you’ve had a tough life, but now I feel sorry for you for a new reason. Because we see now how it has made you parched and constricted and a far from gracious person. And worst of all, it has stripped your game of whatever generosity it may have had.

We’re onto you, babyface.

Go Amelie, this year will be your oyster.

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