Dementieva and Henin-Hardenne on the couch

The clay court season has started. The men played on red clay last week in Monte Carlo. Rafael Nadal won the event after yet another five set match. Unfortunately, The Tennis Channel does not come to my neighborhood yet. I have no such excuse for the Nasdaq final between Federer and Nadal – my DVR couldn’t handle the time change. I did manage to get a copy though. Coming soon.

Justine Henin-Hardenne and Elena Dementieva played the final on green clay at the Family Circle Cup. I’ve never seen this before. In between points each woman rested on a couch that looked like it had been borrowed from the front parlor room of an old Victorian mansion from nearby Charleston.

Henin-Hardenne is nothing if not competitive. It must have pissed her off to see her countrywoman Kim Clijsters win two big tournaments in a row: the Pac Life and Nasdaq 100. Let’s see if she can keep up.

Dementieva and Henin-Hardenne are even through the first six games, each with a break and one double fault. Dementieva breaks in the eighth game to go up 5-3. This is only Hardenne’s second tournament back after missing most of last year with injury and illness. Her magnificent backhand is working well but here forehand is still undependable.

Henin-Hardenne is one of the top servers on the tour. In the fourth game she unloads one at 117mph, only 10mph off the WTA record, and her first serve percentage is 65%. She has a good second serve yet she’s winning only 15% of second serve points. What’s going on here?

Dementieva’s serve is an adventure unlike anything you see except, maybe, at one of my matches. Given this serve and the fact that she doesn’t often come to the net, Dementieva must have game somewhere. She’s the number two seed here, ranks fifth in the world, she’s won four tour events and played in two slam finals and yet she had 17, yes 17, double faults in her quarterfinal win against Katarina Srebotnik. She has consistent, deep ground shots, a good inside out forehand and backhand and superior anticipation. She’s well on her way to the ball when many other plays would just be starting.

And she returns serve exceptionally well. Thus explaning Hardenne’s second serve winning percentage.

In the ninth game, Henin-Hardenne starts taking chances with her groundstrokes, comes to the net more and wins the last four games to win the set 7-5. This elicits squeals number 3, 4, 5 and 6 from Dementieva, she’s a squealer, one after a net chord, another after a backhand error and the last two as she realizes that Henin-Hardenne is taking the game to her and she’s not responding.

In each of Dementieva’s first two service games in the second set, she double faults twice. There are five breaks in the first six games and Henin-Hardenne is up 4-2. Both players are playing uninspired tennis.

This is the time when I remember why I prefer hard court tennis. Long rallies of high looping balls on green clay, or worse, red clay, can be uninteresting. The long rallies may be tiring Henin-Hardenne; she’s already played two three setters to get here. Her illness last year was exhaustion and she is surely telling herself that Dementieva might have the advantage in a third set. She attacks even more and makes errors as Dementieva climbs back to 4-4.

She wore herself out. She came back for the Olympics and, typically, won the gold medal then fell to exhaustion again. It will be interesting to see if her body can keep up with her will.

Henin-Hardenne is a champion for a reason. She’s fearless. She goes for a huge backhand down the line to get a break point in the ninth game, breaks on the next point and regains momentum. Serving for the set and match, she smacks every first serve as hard as she can to try to end the match here and now. She gets few of those serves in but she does get one ace and hits three other winners. After a few “allez!”s from the Belgian, eight squeals and some muttering in Russian from Dementieva, Henin-Hardenne has her first title of the year, 7-5, 6-4.

Now let’s go back to that couch.

Some players are talented but mercurial, Safin for instance. Others physically impose their game on their opponent. Henin-Hardenne is one of those players who wills herself to excellence. But you can push yourself too hard. I am just a lowly recreational player and even I set goals that are too high and exhaust myself trying to reach them. That may be hard to say about someone who has won three grand slams but I think it might explain part of the illness that kept her at home most of last year. She wore herself out. She came back for the Olympics and, typically, won the gold medal then fell to exhaustion again. It will be interesting to see if her body can keep up with her will.

Dementieva seems to enjoy putting herself in a difficult position then finding her way out of it. She’s an interesting mixture because she’s known as a tenacious fighter and yet her double faults increase tellingly when she’s under pressure. She may be number five in the rankings but the only person in the top ten with fewer tour wins is number ten, Vera Zvonareva, and she’s been on the tour two years less. Dementieva has yet to win a tier 1 level tournament.

Clearly a better serve would improve her game. It would relieve her of putting so much pressure on the rest of her game to make up for the double faults and wonky serves. More importantly, the mental strength she’d gain from being able to serve consistently might make her feel more comfortable as a front runner.