A three-peat for Justine Henin will not come easy

Originally Published: January 28, 2007
ESPN.com

The French Open women's final is set. Two-time defending champion Justine Henin will put her 20-match Roland Garros win streak on the line against Serbian sensation Ana Ivanovic. Though appearing in her first-ever Grand Slam final, Ivanovic has been one of the hottest players on tour, having won a title in Berlin the week before the French Open began.

So which of these finalists will end up hoisting the trophy when all is said and done? Bonnie DeSimone and Greg Garber have been on site throughout the fortnight and make arguments for each player.

The cases for Justine Henin and Ana Ivanovic to win the French Open
JUSTINE HENIN

Justine Henin
Woods
PARIS -- Saturday's French Open final will mark the fifth straight time Justine Henin has played for a Grand Slam championship, with an asterisk. She missed this year's Australian Open to deal with the breakup of her marriage.

Now that she's single, some people apparently feel more comfortable expressing their innermost feelings about her.

"I love you!'' a male voice called from the crowd during Henin's semifinal match Thursday against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia.

Henin laughed when reminded. "I vaguely heard it,'' she said in French. "That's fine. It's better than 'I hate you.'"

Roland Garros crowds have a strong and collective affection for Henin, and to paraphrase a famous bit of the Beatles' poetry, this seems to be the one place where the love she takes is equal to the love she makes. She won her third title here in 2006 and she will beat No. 7 Ana Ivanovic on Saturday because Henin is -- scarily -- a better player than she was last year.

It's a tenuous endeavor to psychoanalyze athletes from the cool remove of the press box, but the 25-year-old Henin has been as direct as is probably appropriate in talking about her new sense of equilibrium and perspective as the dust settles from her personal travails.

Her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, knows her better than anyone and confirmed that Henin has plugged what might have been the one chink in her armor.

"She's a better and more mature person, and the player follows,'' Rodriguez said Thursday.

Not to say that the final will be easy. Two impressive streaks will collide: Ivanovic's 12-match string that includes the Berlin title, and Henin's 33 consecutive sets at the French Open dating back to the fourth round in 2005. But the weight of the occasion is far more likely to tug at the 19-year-old Ivanovic.

Henin made shockingly quick work of the two most dangerous players in her half of the draw, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic. Henin's No. 1 ranking is also safe now that Maria Sharapova is out of the tournament, although one reason Henin might be playing with such apparent zest is that she's not dwelling on stats.

Even when Henin hasn't played spectacularly, she's played crisp, clean, smart tennis with an economy of energy that means she'll come into the final not only relaxed but relatively fresh. The entire court is her red zone. She'll score early and often.

-- Bonnie DeSimone
Special to ESPN.com

ANA IVANOVIC

Ana Ivanovic
Ivanovic
PARIS -- Ana Ivanovic is hooked on the television show "Lost."

"It's very exciting," she said. "It's also a little bit scary. You don't know what to expect."

This could well describe the 19-year-old Serbian's first journey into a Grand Slam singles semifinal. Ivanovic will be nervous -- how could she be anything else? -- but she must hope she doesn't find herself on an island with no clue as to how to get off.

It will be Ivanovic versus Justine Henin, who is seeking her third straight title here at Roland Garros.

After her 65-minute 6-2, 6-1 semifinal loss to Ivanovic, Sharapova was asked if she thought Ivanovic could win the tournament.

"Definitely, why not?" Sharapova said, unconvincingly. "I mean, if she goes for her shots. I think everyone that's in the final has a chance to win."

Full disclosure: This was before it was clear Ivanovic would be facing the Belgian Assassin. There won't be many folks outside of Serbia predicting an Ivanovic victory, but there is a modest case to be made.

There is something to be said for youthful enthusiasm. This is a first for Ivanovic, which conceivably could work in her favor.

More important, she has some serious momentum.

She won the Berlin tournament last month, beating some solid players, including Patty Schnyder (a tough out on clay) and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Here, she's won six matches, most recently beating Kuznetsova and Sharapova, running her total to 12 straight wins. Even Henin, who lost in the Berlin semifinals to Kuznetsova, can't match that.

The head-to-head between these two is a single match, in 2005, won by Henin in Warsaw 6-4, 7-5. But that was two years ago, before Ivanovic's game matured. Unlike Jelena Jankovic, who had seen Henin five previous times -- three this year alone -- Ivanovic has an air of mystery about her.

Clearly, Ivanovic is comfortable here. She's a spiffy 12-2 at Roland Garros for her career and she reached the quarterfinals two years ago as a 17-year-old.

"It was a great experience," Ivanovic said. "I think that experience helped me a lot to get through this year. It's important for me to play my game and to move forward."

Ivanovic has some big shots, easily bigger than Henin's. If she hits out, as Sharapova said, and doesn't get "lost" in the moment, a victory is not likely, but technically possible.

-- Greg Garber
ESPN.com