- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England If commitment has a say, it should be Justine Henin's day.

When the Belgian upstart takes Centre Court today in her first major final against defending Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, the juxtaposition in dedication between the two could prove pivotal.

"Justine is a very hard worker," said Belgian journalist Frans Verstockt, who covers tennis for Het Nieusblad in Brussels and has chronicled Henin's career for the last five years. "She has tried to model herself after her idol Steffi Graf, her practice work and her all-court game. For five years, she has almost never missed a day of practicing for two hours and running for an hour. She's very serious, almost never goes out at night. I think because of what happened with her mother, her family situation, she's had to be very serious, do it on her own."

Henin's mother, Francoise, who introduced Justine to tennis at age five, died of intestinal cancer when her daughter was 12. That left Justine to help raise her younger sister while maintaining her rigorous practice schedule. Then earlier this year, Justine split with her father, Jose, because she felt he was becoming a typical meddling tennis dad.

"One thing I never stop was practice," said the 19-year-old Henin, who took refuge from her personal problems on the practice court with longtime coach Carlos Rodriguez. "Things were very tough some different times, but there was tennis always."

Henin was blessed with a natural, one-handed backhand, a signature shot she displayed time and again in her comeback victory over Jennifer Capriati in the semifinals. But she has carefully cultivated the rest of the game that helped her through the women's draw a slice she copied from Graf, and a serve and volley game she patterned after childhood favorite Stefan Edberg.

"I work on everything, because I want all parts of the game," said Henin, who rallied from down a set and a game against Capriati for a 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory.

Compare that commitment to the post-semifinal commentary of Williams, who played just seven tournaments entering Wimbledon and spent as much time over the last several months tinkering with her fashion design aspirations as her suspect finesse game.

"I think if I would have practiced more, then maybe I would have had a better first part of this year," said the 21-year-old Williams. "But that's OK. I had a good time whatever I was doing. I guess it was worthwhile… . Sometimes it is hard to practice because I get a little bored with practicing. It's not always fun."

Now there's a news flash.

"It's hard to know what [Venus] is thinking sometimes when she says things like that," TNT analyst Mary Carillo said of Williams' comments. "She's a wonderful competitor once she's out there, and she has mountains of talent. But if she wants to be a totally dominant player, she's going to have to totally dedicate herself to expanding her skills."

Despite the disparity in their preparation, Williams has a pair of major advantages heading into today's final. First, Henin has a badly blistered right ankle that prohibited her from practice of any sort between matches. In fact, she was still limping badly at breakfast yesterday.

"For sure, it's getting worse," said Henin. "But when you are in the final of a Grand Slam, you give everything you have."

Second, Williams has handled the pressure of a Wimbledon final before, dispatching Lindsay Davenport in straight sets last year.

"You know, I feel comfortable," said Williams. "I've been there once or twice before in a big final. So, I think that my chances are good."

Still, Henin has won the only meeting between the two, shocking Williams 6-1, 6-4 on clay in the early rounds of the German Open in May. And thanks to her diverse game and well-honed strokes, the 5-foot-6, 120-pound Henin isn't intimidated by Williams' stature or reputation.

"I beat already Venus Williams," said Henin, seeming totally unfazed by the huge international profile of her opponent. "I think I don't mind about this kind of player because I can move well on the court. I'm so fast. I can also be a strong player when I want… . I'm not afraid of the size."

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