Henin-Hardenne almost digs out of a hole against Sharapova

This DVR thing is just about working correctly. I wanted to cover Andre Agassi v. Gaston Gaudio but the match between Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin-Hardenne went longer than expected. Andre and Gaston were cut off before the end of the match.

So let’s check in with the other Belgian who is returning from a long injury layoff and see how she’s doing. The last tournament Henin-Hardenne played in was the U.S. Open

It did not start out well for Henin-Hardenne. Sharapova was hitting everything as hard as she could and that’s pretty hard. Five games into the match, Henin-Hardenne had won exactly two points on her serve. She was not getting a lot of depth on her ground strokes and she was getting killed on second serves. She would end up winning just 14% of her second serve points in the first set.

Last week we saw Kim Clijsters climb out of a big hole at 0-4, 0-40 and come back to beat Lindsay Davenport by attacking on the return of serve. What will Henin-Hardenne do in a similar situation? Serving at 1-4, she realizes that she has to take some chances on her serve to keep Sharapova from crushing it and she has to extend the rallies so that she can find an opportunity to attack. Henin-Hardenne has two service winners and an ace in the game and three rallies go for at least ten strokes. She loses the game but she’s making progress.

Sharapova serves out for the set and breaks Henin-Hardenne in the first game of the second set. The length of the rallies is creeping up continuously and Henin-Hardenne has two break points in the second game though she cannot convert. Sharapova’s error total is increasing with each game.

Henin-Hardenne has two break points again on Sharapova’s next service game but Sharapova holds on to go up 3-1 despite two double faults. She can see that Sharapova is starting to falter so she keeps attacking.

Henin-Hardenne is known as the toughest competitor on the women’s tour. Sometimes it seems like she wills herself to championships. She’s taking pace off the ball to give Sharapova less to work with and extend the rallies, she’s hitting harder serves and she’s going for more winners. When you hit harder, you make more errors. Not only that, but she’s still losing games despite playing Sharapova much tighter. Most players would get discouraged and start to get frustrated but Henin-Hardenne just keeps slamming away and pushing at Sharapova knowing that it should eventually pay off.

Henin-Hardenne breaks to get to 2-4 as Sharapova sends three backhands into the net then wins the next game at love. They each hold serve and Sharapova has three match points at 5-4. She hits three straight errors and sends a backhand wide giving Henin-Hardenne break point. Then she double faults to even the set at 5-5. She has to be thinking about the three match points she had against Serena Williams in the Australian Open, a match she lost.

If Sharapova wants to win more majors, she needs more game.

Sharapova has two ways of playing: full out and slightly less than full out. She’s working on a slice but she doesn’t yet have a lot of variety in her game. If she’s not playing well and she meets up with someone like Davenport at the Pacific Open and loses 6-0, 6-0, she doesn’t have a lot of options to fight back into the match. When you run out of options in a tennis match, you put pressure on yourself to execute better and pressure brings on nerves, which brings on double faults at set point. Still, she’s only seventeen and she’s won a major and a tour championship. But both Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne were missing for much of last year and Serena Williams was also injured. If Sharapova wants to win more majors, she needs more game.

Henin-Hardenne wins a very close tiebreaker 8-6 to even the match at one set each. Sharapova then takes an injury time out to receive treatment for lower back pain. It’s a smart idea to take a break when your opponent has grabbed the momentum. An injury timeout is as good as a bathroom break and much better than throwing a fit as McEnroe was known to do.

At this point in the match, I went to bed. During the night I had a dream about a big hole. The hole was in an oval racing track and at first it was like a large pothole you might find in New York City. As the dream went on the hole grew larger. There was a man at the bottom of the hole who was trying to get out. He and his car had fallen in. At one point he took a heroic run and got three quarters up the side of what was now a gargantuan hole with a lot of loose dirt. Then he slipped back down to the bottom and the crowd groaned. Next he was joined in the hole by another man who, evidently, was responsible for making the hole in the first place. The trapped man started beating on the new man in the hole. Strangely enough, the dream had two endings (I think I’ve been living in Hollywood for too long). The first version faded out with the two men fighting. In the second version, the hole shrunk back to a more manageable size as the men were fighting and the original trapped man was finally able to crawl out. We all cheered.

Clearly I wanted Henin-Hardenne to escape from the match with a win. At the very least I wanted a fight. It didn’t happen. The injury time out seems to revitalize Sharapova. The third set looks remarkably like the first. The third set has 42 points, the first had 44. Henin-Hardenne has a –5 differential between winners and errors in the third set and –4 in the first, Sharapova’s differentials were 0 and +1. Sharapova has only five unforced errors in the last set and wins 85% of her first serve points to win the match 6-1, 6-7(6), 6-2.

I don’t think Henin-Hardenne gave up, I don’t think she ever gives up. She got back into the match by attacking when Sharapova started to falter. After Sharapova righted herself, clearly her back was bothering her, she had too much power on her serve and ground strokes. Today she had enough game.