Henin-Hardenne streaks to victory

The Belgian looked nothing like the exhausted player who had retired in the Australian Open final as she outplayed Sharapova to win the Dubai Open.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2006 21:02 IST

Justine Henin-Hardenne looked nothing like the exhausted player who had retired in the final of the Australian Open a month ago as she outplayed Maria Sharapova to win the Dubai Open for a third time in four years.

The Belgian French Open champion's 7-5, 6-2 win over the former Wimbledon champion from Russia maintained an unbeaten record with a 15th win from 15 matches in three tournaments on the slowish hard courts here.

It also suggested that Henin-Hardenne is learning to cope with her fitness problems— a troublesome shoulder and the debilitating legacy of a long-lasting viral problem— and could remain a greater force within the game during 2006 than she sometimes suggests.

After escaping from danger Henin-Hardenne got on top in the second set, becoming the more consistent player in the baseline exchanges, and creating more pressure with her varied angles and smoother changes of direction.

"It was a high quality match, especially in the first set" she said. "Maria put a lot of pressure on me. I think the key was when I tried to hit the ball down the centre more, rather than playing her out wide.

"But I felt very tired at the end," added Henin-Hardenne. "I have had stomach, knee and shoulder problems this week."

But Sharapova rather missed her chance. The first escape was hers and so was the first break of serve.

She went 15-40 down in the sixth game after a brilliant dinked pas from Henin-Hardenne, but saved both break points and then struck what looked like a crucial blow in the next game— a break of serve achieved at the fourth attempt and with the aid of a rare winning drop shot which nearly brought the house down.

That helped Sharapova to 5-3, but the grunting, gasping, relentlessly fierce hitter could not capitalise on her advantage.

Possibly tense from playing her first final in eight months, Sharapova played a strangely indifferent game as she tried to serve out for the set, and even though she got back from 15-40 to deuce, Henin-Hardenne's solid steady topspin drives elicited uncharacteristic errors.

Henin-Hardenne was twice within two points of losing the set in the next game, but hung on and was given another unexpected bonus of another indifferent service game from Sharapova and broke again for 6-5.

When Henin's turn came to serve out for the first set, there were no problems, and she did so to love. After that she started to generate momentum.

She broke again in the fifth game of the second set and again in the seventh, Sharapova's chance to get back into contention disappearing after she over-hit a heavy forehand drive when she had a break back point at 2-3.

Thereafter the 19-year-old, who also lost to the Belgian in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, looked oddly uncertain.

When she tried to alter the pattern by coming in a little more, she was not able to do so incisively, allowing openings for Henin-Hardenne to make some rousing passing shots.

"I played two difficult games yesterday," said Sharapova, referring to the rain interruptions which caused the quarter and semi-finals to be played within a few hours of each other.

"It took a lot out of me. My legs were starting to get a bit tired and I wasn't moving so well."

Both are likely to return next year along with most of the other leading women because the tournament has made a massive increase in prize money to maintain its status as the only event outside the Grand Slams with equal prize money to the men.

The men's fund is increasing from 1 million dollars to 1.5 million dollars and after Henin's victory it was announced that the women's will rise by the same amount in 2007.

First Published: Feb 26, 2006 12:58 IST