- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

NEW YORK — First chocolate. Then waffles. Now this.

Next thing you know, those pesky Belgians will corner the market on Freedom Fries and gas-guzzling SUVs, too.

Taking full advantage of a Williams-free draw, Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne staked her claim to international — and intra-national — tennis supremacy, winning the U.S. Open by defeating countrywoman Kim Clijsters 7-5, 6-1 last night in the final at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

With the victory, the 21-year-old Henin-Hardenne captured her second major title and her second at Clijsters’ expense, having topped her in the French Open.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Henin-Hardenne, who became the first non-Williams sister to win the Open since 1998. “Yesterday was a tough fight against Jennifer [Capriati]. I didn’t know how I’d feel on the court. But tonight I felt pretty good.”

That the 5-foot-5, 125-pound Henin-Hardenne could win the Open — let alone enter Ashe Stadium upright — was as much a testament to the No.2 seed’s substantial grit as her flowing one-handed backhand.

Following her epic, three-set semifinal win over Capriati on Friday night, the exhausted, cramping Henin-Hardenne needed intravenous fluids and didn’t leave the stadium until nearly 3a.m. A subsequent WTA medical report listed Henin-Hardenne as “questionable” for last night’s match.

Nevertheless, she could be seen practicing on a National Tennis Center side court yesterday afternoon. And in the early stages of the match, it was the top-seeded Clijsters who looked spent, winning a single point in her first two service games.

“Last night when I got off the court, I didn’t know what to expect,” Henin-Hardenne said. “I was feeling so bad. But the doctors and trainers did an unbelievable job.”

Employing the speed that helped her thump Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals, Clijsters battled back to take a 5-4 lead, chasing down a pair of overhead smashes. After one running forehand winner, Clijsters did her best impression of boyfriend Lleyton Hewitt, pumping her fist to a crowd that included the Open men’s quarterfinalist.

In the next game, it was Henin-Hardenne’s turn to scramble: On serve and facing a double-set point, she fired an ace down the middle and later hit a running backhand pass en route to a hold.

A second cutting backhand gave Henin-Hardenne a break of her own, and when Clijsters deposited a forehand into the net on set point, Henin-Hardenne let out a determined yelp.

Henin-Hardenne’s determination carried over into the second as she broke Clijsters twice and took a 4-0 lead. On one break point, Henin-Hardenne raced from the baseline to the net, hitting an improbable backhand lob half-volley that left the onrushing Clijsters shaking her head.

On championship point, Henin-Hardenne powered a forehand smash, then raised both arms in triumph. After winning the French Open, she dedicated the victory to her mother, Francoise, who died of cancer nine years ago. Last night, she held the winner’s trophy aloft with her husband, Pierre-Yves, and her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, looking on.

Sitting with the pair was Henin-Hardenne’s trainer, Pat Etcheberry, whose grueling workouts have transformed a player who just two years ago was blanked in the final set of the Wimbledon final by Venus Williams.

“I knew I was a different player from last year, from the years before,” she said. “I want to dedicate this victory to the people that are around me, who believe in [me], to my coach and my husband.”

Henin-Hardenne smiled.

“My husband was supposed to leave on Tuesday,” she added. “He decided to stay. I think it was a good choice.”

For Clijsters, the loss was a disappointing end to a dominant run through the Open draw. Nevertheless, the 20-year-old Belgian remains the WTA Tour’s top-ranked player — and also the only No.1 never to have won a Grand Slam title, a dubious distinction that has dogged Clijsters since she took over the top spot from former Open champ Serena this summer.

The defeat also extended Clijsters’ run of unexpected Grand Slam pratfalls, including a loss to Capriati in the French Open final, a loss to Venus at Wimbledon and a memorable come-from-ahead stumble against Serena at the Australian Open.

“Justine just played a great match today,” Clijsters said. “She was just too good.”

For her part, Henin-Hardenne proved herself the best player in the world not named Williams — and maybe the best player, period.

Though Capriati said last week that the winner of this year’s Open would carry an “asterisk” next to her name, Henin-Hardenne topped Serena in the French Open semis, leads the women’s tour with seven titles this season and left an “L” — never mind an asterisk — on Capriati’s ledger.

“Maybe I started later than other players,” Henin-Hardenne said. “Winning two Grand Slams at 21, it’s great. It gives me a lot of confidence for my career. When you come from a little country like Kim and me, you want to prove to the world what you can do.”

So hand Henin-Hardenne an asterisk. Pray for the Williams sisters’ speedy recovery. Flip the dial over to football. Call her “Christine,” as one of the tournament’s stuffed-suit sponsors did during the trophy presentation.

Ten million Belgians don’t care. And last night neither did Henin-Hardenne.

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