Pierce has no answer for Belgian
PARIS -- Grand Slam, indeed!
Justine Henin-Hardenne slammed Mary Pierce grandly in the French Open final on Saturday, reducing the Frenchwoman to tears and an apology to fans after the most lopsided title match at Roland Garros in 17 years.
Henin-Hardenne couldn't have played much better, or Pierce much worse, than they did in a 6-1, 6-1 drubbing that gave the Belgian her second French championship and fourth major trophy just months after she returned to tennis from a long layoff caused by an energy-draining blood virus and a knee injury.
"It's a lot of emotion for me," a smiling Henin-Hardenne said in French as she accepted the same ornate Suzanne Lenglen Cup she won in 2003, along with a check for just over $1 million. "I lived through very difficult moments last year. This fills me with happiness."
Bedridden at times during her seven-month absence from the game until starting her comeback in March, and bothered by a back injury the past two weeks, Henin-Hardenne looked the picture of health in a masterful performance on a breezy, occasionally drizzly afternoon at Roland Garros.
"I probably enjoy my game more than before my illness," said Henin-Hardenne, who turned 23 three days earlier. "I enjoy every moment I'm on the court. Every ball I hit, it's with my heart."
She glided with ease on the red clay and did anything she wanted to do -- clipping lines and corners with groundstrokes, hammering overheads, dropping volleys -- while getting plenty of help from an outclassed Pierce, the 2000 champion.
"Excuse me. It's very difficult to speak right now," the 30-year-old Pierce tearfully told the crowd in French after the most one-sided French final since Steffi Graf beat Natasha Zvereva 6-0, 6-0 in 1988. "I'm sad because I lost. I wanted to play a better match. I'm sorry it didn't last very long."
When she gathered her emotions afterward, she said neither patriotic pressure nor nerves got to her, but rather an odd lack of tension before her third French final, 11 years after her first.
"You have to have some kind of emotion to be up for the match, and before today's match I was really calm," she said, adding that she sometimes has had trouble breathing or eating before big matches in the past. "Maybe I was too calm. I needed to be more aggressive."
Henin-Hardenne's first French final triumph didn't last much longer -- a 6-0, 6-4 romp past fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters. Nor was last year's final much of match, Anastasia Myskina beating Elena Dementieva 6-1, 6-2. For three years running, the French women's finals have been blowouts.
Pierce held serve to start the 62-minute match, then wilted as she watched Henin-Hardenne win the next six straight games to close out the set -- the last point on a double-fault by Pierce -- and three more in a row to start the second set.
Pierce had looked so fluid, effortlessly striking winners with deep, hard, flat groundstrokes against No. 1 Lindsay Davenport in the quarters and Elena Likhovtseva in the semis. Now Pierce seemed wooden, awkward, flat, her timing off and her shots wild.
Henin-Hardenne, extending her winning streak to 24 consecutive matches, all on clay, didn't need any luck, but she had that going for her, too. When she mis-hit a forehand return on one of Pierce's serves in the first set, the ball knuckled in a high arc through the gentle wind and landed on the baseline. Surprised, Pierce whacked it wide with a backhand -- the 14th straight point she lost during a stretch from the second game to the fifth.
The crowd kept chanting for Pierce -- "Mar-y! Mar-y!" -- and tried to rally her with rhythmic clapping. Nothing worked.
Pierce came close to breaking Henin-Hardenne only once, in the first game of the second set. After winning just two points on the Belgian's serve in the first set, Pierce achieved her only break point of the match when she struck a forehand into the corner that Henin-Hardenne lunged toward but hit long. With the crowd again chanting her first name, Pierce wasted the opportunity by sailing a forehand wide. Fans groaned and Pierce sagged. Three points later, Henin-Hardenne served an ace, then won the game when Pierce raced in on a floater and mis-hit her volley wide.
A sprinkle at the start of the next game brought out umbrellas and jackets and raised hopes that Pierce might be saved, at least for a while, by rain. But the rain stopped as abruptly as it had begun, the charcoal clouds passed, and Pierce served a game that included a hacker's nightmare -- an easy overhead five feet from the net that she dumped into the cords.
Pierce lost that game, saw Henin-Hardenne hold to make it 3-0, then finally won her only other game when she held for the second time in the match -- much to the delight of her frustrated fans, who responded with sustained applause.
That didn't last long. Henin-Hardenne swept the next three games, getting help from two more double-faults by Pierce, and saw the match end with one last unforced error by Pierce, a backhand into the net.
"It wasn't an easy situation for her," Henin-Hardenne said. "She had to deal with a lot of pressure, being here in the final in France. I think it's very difficult. I did put a lot of pressure on her. For sure the crowd would prefer a closer match than that, but I'm very happy with the way I won."
The only major Henin-Hardenne has not won is Wimbledon. She said she'll give that a try, but will skip the warmup grass-court tournament in Eastbourne.
"My body is a little bit tired," she said. "I won't make the same mistakes as in the past. I'll take the rest when I need it."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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