The truth is that I’m learning to appreciate Justine Henin-Hardenne.

I’d glumly expected Maria Sharapova to advance to the finals at the WTA Championships this week. She had a nineteen game winning streak and she hadn’t lot a set yet. It’s not that I don’t like her, I mean in that abstract way in which we like or dislike athletes as though we know them personally although we don’t. It’s just that Sharapova’s time will come and I’d like to see the current generation, Amelie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, yes, even Justine, do well.

At the age of twenty-four, Henin-Hardenne is five years older than Sharapova but that’s a generation in the tennis world. Tennis players don’t usually hang around long beyond the age of thirty. Andre Agassi was an exception but he had to suffer through a few years of very painful sciatica and far more cortisone shots than any human should take and that’s a tough way to go out. And don’t talk to me about Martina Navratilova, she’s from another planet.

When baseball players started hitting career high statistics in their late thirties, that was our signal to start testing for steroids. Clijsters is exceptional at the other extreme, she plans to retire at the end of next year at age twenty-four. After her semifinal match with Mauresmo, she should rethink that decision. It was by far the best match of the week and for my money, the best knockdown, drag out tennis fight of the year on the women’s tour and it ended rather strangely but I’ll get to that in a moment.

After splitting the first two sets, Clijsters and Mauresmo went toe to toe. If Clijsters hit a running, dipping passing shot, Mauresmo came right back with a gorgeous volley. If Mauresmo pulled Clijsters out of the court, Clijsters whipped a crosscourt forehand winner. If Clijsters broke Mauresmo, Mauresmo broke right back. Clijsters was serving at 3-4 when they hit a fifteen stroke slamfest. Clijsters retrieved two sure Mauresmo winners then slipped and put a backhand into the net giving Mauresmo a break point.

Then it happened. Clijsters half-heartedly hit a forehand out and held her hand up to call for a challenge. She was sure Mauresmo’s previous shot had landed out. She was wrong and it cost her the match. She had lost her serve and now Mauresmo could serve for the match.

The first thing I thought of was the end of the Chicago Marathon a few weeks ago. Robert Cheruiyot made it all the way to the finish line then slipped and knocked himself silly. You can see it here. He won the marathon because his feet crossed the finish line but Clijsters gave up before she got to the finish line. She challenged a call in the middle of a point while facing a break point. That is never a good idea unless the ball is at least a foot beyond the baseline.

Sharapova didn’t make it to the final because she came out flat, flat, flat. Henin-Hardenne won the first set easily and held on long enough to take the second set and the match. And here you see a perverse benefit of the injury epidemic that has been creeping up on the WTA the past few years. A player who’s been injured is fresher than one who hasn’t been injured because they’ve had time off. Sharapova has played in three tournaments since her U.S. Open title and won the last two. Henin-Hardenne hasn’t played on the tour since she injured her knee at the Fed Cup finals in the middle of September.

I don’t know whether to admire Henin-Hardenne for winning so much despite her physical health or question her string of retirements this year. When she retired in the Australian Open, it gave Mauresmo the title – and pissed people off. When she retired in the Fed Cup doubles match, it gave Italy the 2006 Fed Cup title. At least it was a knee that time and not an upset tummy. I’m beginning to wonder if the injury epidemic isn’t just a way to take necessary breaks from the overlong tour schedule.

The truth is that I’m learning to appreciate Justine Henin-Hardenne. I do not find myself liking her, again, in that abstract kind of way, in fact I find myself looking for and not finding anything that might attract me – a few more smiles, some self-doubt, a bit of earnest apology here and there. I don’t see them. Her little “allez’s” on the court seem programmed rather than spontaneous and I don’t see joy in her celebration. But respect is creeping up on me.

Henin-Hardenne beat Mauresmo in today’s final by hitting the ball harder and playing more aggressively. That make four grand slam finals – she won the French Open – and now the WTA Championships in one year. Steffi Graf was the last player to do that thirteen years ago and she won twenty-two slams in her career. Graf isn’t from another planet, she’s from another universe.

Henin-Hardenne also won the year end number one ranking by getting to the semifinals. It’s amazing if you think about it because she’s almost a part-time player – she played in only twelve regular tour events this year. She reminds me of Steve McNair, a well known quarterback in the NFL. When McNair played for the Tennessee Titans, he was so banged up he’d miss practice all week then go out on Sunday and play such high caliber football that he was the co-MVP of the league with Peyton Manning one year. It takes tremendous focus and skill to do that and I would be cold-hearted and cruel not to give Henin-Hardenne full credit for her accomplishments.

Now, if I could just find a few reasons to like her, I’d be a full-grown Henin-Hardenne groupie.

See also:
2006 WTA Championships: Gonna Cry And Beg For Mercy
2006 WTA Championships: A Year Of Returns
2006 WTA Championships: Last One Standing

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