It took getting through two Williams sisters in succession to reach her second consecutive US Open final, but Justine Henin, who professes to be newly at peace and reconciled with her family after a divorce, did just that, and without losing a set to either sister.
After defeating Serena in the quarterfinals, Henin prevailed over the elder Williams, Venus, in the semifinals on a hot, humid and breezy afternoon. In their first meeting since 2003, when Henin had yet to win a major, the Belgian won in two tough sets, 7-5, 6-4.
“ I just love being out there and I enjoy my tennis much more than in the past,” declared Henin after her victory.
Henin, the No. 1 player in the world, will attempt to win her second US Open and seventh Grand Slam when she faces 4th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, whom she has beaten in 14 of 16 matches, in prime time on Saturday night. Kuznetsova defeated countrywoman Anna Chakvetadze to advance to the final.
Said Henin, “It's not easy to play Serena and Venus, you know.” However, she note, “My tournament is not over yet. It's been tough last few days.”
Asked if the Williams sisters approached her any differently now that she has won multiple majors, Henin said, “No, I don't think so. They still do the same thing as five years ago.”
Henin displayed fierce shotmaking ability and intense retrieving — not to mention considerable guile and gritty determination — to defeat Venus, who had come into the semifinal looking perhaps the strongest of the four remaining combatants. The match was marked by several scintillating exchanges and momentum swings.
Williams, who said she was “feeling dizzy, a little sick to the stomach” and “having some energy problems” did say that Henin “always plays well. Whether it's today or any other day, she always plays a solid game.”
In the first set, Henin showed off her ability to scamper about the court and return balls seemingly out of her reach. She also struck powerful groundstrokes that belied the Belgian’s sleight stature.
At 5-3, Henin ran wide to her backhand, slid toward the alley as she stabbed at the ball, then pivoted and raced to her forehand side, where she swatted back a smash past Venus at the net.
Late in the first set, Henin had won 11 straight points on her serve, but at serving to close it out at 5-4, Venus saved two set points and managed to get to deuce for the first time on Henin’s serve. On break point, Henin seemed to tense up, and she floated a forehand long, allowing Venus to get back on serve at 5-5.
One of the match’s outstanding points, a mesmerizing 27-shot rally with a rapid-fire net exchange, which forced Henin to hit four volleys before Venus could pass her with a forehand, began the next game.
Each player subsequently held serve, and the first set went to a tiebreak. Henin capitalized on several errors off the racquet of Venus, and the Belgian unleashed a down-the-line forehand service return to take the breaker, 7-2.
After a bathroom break, Henin raced to a 3-0 lead, but Venus climbed back into the match with a two-fisted backhand, eventually knotting the score at 3-3. In a tense, crucial game that proved the turning point in the match, Henin, with her first serve misfiring, went down love-40. Yet she extricated herself, saving all three break points to take a 4-3 lead.
It was then Venus’s turn to get down 0-40 on her serve. Venus fought back to 30-40, but Henin capitalized on her third break point and took a 5-3 lead.
Yet Henin could not close out the match on her serve. With Venus once again serving to tie the score at 5-5, as she successfully did in the first set, Henin dug in and earned her 7th break point. A Williams backhand floated wide, and Henin escaped with a tight decision and berth in the final.
“I just won it with my heart,” said Henin in her on-court interview with Mary Joe Fernandez following the match.
The Belgian demonstrated once again that, for a little woman, she has a disproportionately large ticker.