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Deflating end to great women's tournament

1/31/2006

MELBOURNE, Australia -- I don't think what Justine Henin-Hardenne did takes away from the other things she's accomplished, I really don't.

The decision to retire because of an upset stomach, though, will be part of her legacy because it's such a rare piece of history. Four times in 100-plus years of Grand Slam women's finals this has happened, and this was the first time in 41 years.

Many players have toughed out matches when they haven't felt well or were injured much worse and had no chance of winning. But you finish because it honors the sport. It gives respect to your opponent, the fans and the game.

It's especially unfortunate for Amelie Mauresmo because she would have won the match anyway. She was the better player here for two weeks and had a great game plan. She waited till she was 26 to win her first Slam and to win it that way is unfortunate because it deprived her of the joy of closing out a final.

Mauresmo said in the press conference, "I was ready to die on the court." That was a great comment. As a fan that's what you want to hear an athlete say. Obviously, Henin-Hardenne wasn't ready to go anywhere near that far and I think that's too bad.

I do feel sympathy for Henin-Hardenne in that she wasn't physically ready to play in a very big match, and she'd just won two tough matches over Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova to reach the final. But two days ago she was running around and grinding Sharapova down in a very physical three-set match. So I don't know how things could have changed so radically for her in two days.

I didn't notice anything watching her play, but more importantly Mauresmo didn't. She said she didn't see any difference on the court. Henin-Hardenne said she thought it was obvious and that Mauresmo had used tactics to capitalize on the fact that she wasn't moving well, but Amelie didn't mention that at all.

Mary Joe Fernandez' pre-match report was that Henin-Hardenne was emotionally spent from the two previous matches, but physically she was OK.

Clearly she was being frustrated by Mauresmo's game plan which was working perfectly. Henin-Hardenne was making a lot of errors on the high balls and wasn't able to solve that. But if you look back a few points before she retired, it was one of the longest points of the match, a great baseline rally.

Two points later she can't go. That's bizarre to me and it was a very deflating end to the tournament.

Justine's explanation will not go over well in the world press. People will believe that it was a bit of a selfish act and point to other issues of character in Henin-Hardenne's past that might be lumped in with this when you look at her as a player.

If you retire in the second round of a Slam or in the final of a lesser event, that's different. You honor the sport, fans and players who have competed over the years who have not felt great yet finished the match. That's what you do.

Kim Clijsters' situation is different; she tore ligaments in her ankle and is out for months. Even Michaella Krajicek (Mauresmo's opponent in the third round), she retired because she had heat stroke. She literally couldn't go on. It's bizarre to win three matches by retirement.

But it's different when it's the final. Even if you sleepwalk through the match and lose 6-1, 6-0 most people would say you finish the match.

An upset stomach doesn't quite cut it in most people's book.

ESPN's Chris Fowler will provide analysis for ESPN.com during the Australian Open.