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A Failure of Nerve in Final

Times Staff Writer

This was not about the last woman standing. Rather, the Australian Open final had more to do with the last woman not faltering.

Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium and her countrywoman Kim Clijsters traded the baton of nerves at Melbourne Park today before Clijsters came thoroughly undone in the second-to-last game, double-faulting twice on game points and coming out on the losing end of a controversial overrule.

Her high anxiety did not go unnoticed by the top-seeded and ever-alert Henin-Hardenne, who said that game gave her the strength to serve it out and win her third Grand Slam singles title, defeating No. 2 Clijsters, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, in 1 hour 47 minutes.

She has taken out Clijsters in the three Slam finals, and is one major away from a career Grand Slam, missing only a Wimbledon title. After Henin-Hardenne hit a service winner on match point, she put her hands over her eyes.

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No one could quite believe the twisting, turning maze of a final was truly over.

There’s something weirdly fascinating about many of these finals at Melbourne Park. Maybe Clijsters’ downfall had to do with the Curse of the Shark. It is not a good sign when golfer Greg Norman walks in and sits down in the camp of someone beset with mental fragility in the clutch.

Just cue up that replay of Clijsters’ squandering two match points against Serena Williams here last year in the semifinals. For better or worse, that collapse has become the defining moment of her career.

Meanwhile, Henin-Hardenne has been able to get the best of her own nerves in these finals, and has now won three of the last four majors.

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“We were fighting for No. 1 again, but that’s not the main thing,” Henin-Hardenne said. “That was a tough match, for Kim and for me. We could see that both of us were really nervous.... I was feeling nervous. I have to be honest. But two years ago or 12 months ago, this kind of match, I wasn’t coming through. I wasn’t winning. Today, I did. So a great evolution.”

On the other side, Clijsters, now 0-4 in Grand Slam finals, might have more in common with a certain football team. Has Aussie Kim become Buffalo Kim?

She denied she got nervous at 3-4, when she served two critical double faults, both on game points. Henin-Hardenne acknowledged her nerves were getting to her but the reprieve in that eighth game was timely, considering Clijsters was surging, having rallied from an 0-4 third-set deficit.

“Game after game I was feeling more and more nervous,” Henin-Hardenne told Australian television. “It wasn’t easy at all. The game to go to 5-3 helped me have good serves in the last game.”

Henin-Hardenne was helped by a disputed overrule in that game. Clijsters, facing break point, hit a high forehand volley close to the baseline. The line judge called it good but chair umpire Sandra De Jenken immediately called it out. Henin-Hardenne also thought the ball was out.

Television replays indicated otherwise; it appeared the ball caught the back of the baseline.

Clijsters was diplomatically disappointed.

“I’m not the type of player that’s gonna start complaining after matches,” she said. “That’s something at the moment [that is] very disappointing. A few people have told me it was in. So that’s even more disappointing then. I’m not going to blame the umpire or anything because everyone makes mistakes.”

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Said Henin-Hardenne: “I was pretty sure [it was out], yeah. That’s why I said that was long, from my point of view. So I didn’t look [later] at the image [on TV]. Right now, I don’t care too much about this.”

At least this final had elements of drama and was competitive, unlike their finals at the French Open and the U.S. Open last year. Clijsters had to be given credit for chipping away at Henin-Hardenne’s lead, especially after being down a set and a break, 2-4, in the second set.

But Henin-Hardenne finds a way to win from the most difficult positions, whether coming off an IV drip and beating Clijsters less than a day later in New York, or here when she admittedly was a bit off in the second and third sets and feeling the mental strain.

Having once dropped five of six matches against Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne has taken five of their last seven meetings, including the three Slam finals.

Already, Henin-Hardenne is looking forward to another career achievement, recognizing that two women who weren’t around this final weekend, Venus and Serena Williams, are the biggest obstacles. Wimbledon is fixed firmly on her horizon.

“It’s going to be another goal for sure, I want to win the four Grand Slams,” Henin-Hardenne said. “I still have to improve my game on grass, especially against Venus and Serena.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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BOX SCORE

WOMEN’S SINGLES CHAMPIONSHIP

Justine Henin-Hardenne (1) d. Fabiola Zuluaga (32), 6-2, 6-2

*--* Henin-Hardenne Zuluaga 1st Serve Percentage...56 53 Aces...3 0 Double Faults...3 2 Unforced Errors...25 22 1st Serve Winning Pct....69 50 2nd Serve Winning Pct....56 44 Winners (including service)...23 11 Break Points...5-10 1-4 Net Points...10-19 6-17 Total Points Won...66 48 Time of Match...1:16

*--*


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