Posted: Tuesday June 21, 2005 7:57PM; Updated: Wednesday June 22, 2005 10:33AM
Eleni Daniilidou is now 2-0 on grass against French Open champ Justine Henin-Hardenne.
WIMBLEDON, England -- Funny thing, belief. Without it, talent fizzles, potential vanishes, opportunity refuses to knock. In tennis, nothing highlights that more dramatically than the annual transition from clay to grass, the walk that Bjorn Borg mastered and only three women -- Martina Navratilova, Stefffi Graf and Serena Williams -- have managed supremely ever since. Year after year, the arrival of Wimbledon signals also the sport's great deflation; an entire crop of punishing clay-court wizards reduced to agate-type afterthoughts by a nicely trimmed lawn. For the last decade, it became a sad joke, really. Take your pick: Carlos Moya, Gustavo Kuerten, Albert Costa, any number of men with Spanish accents and half-hearted complaints; "Grass is for cows, papi," they'd say, and skip the season altogether. It never seemed that way at the time, but in effect their year always ended in June.
I've called plenty of things wrong in my life -- Ryan Leaf would be a great pro quarterback, John Kerry would no doubt be elected -- and I was wrong about Kuerten, too. I can't tell you how many times I predicted that the three-time French Open champion would one day win a hard-court Grand Slam title, and though his backswing lacked the necessary compactness for grass, he was good enough to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Kuerten has had continual injury problems, but his problem in his prime was just as much mental; he felt most comfortable on clay, and the successes of spring left him satisfied. Grass? He didn't believe he could win, so he just didn't show. Hard? When it counted the most, he didn't believe there either -- not in his bones -- so he just didn't win.
Tuesday was I-Believe day at The All England Club. For one set, 104th-ranked Angela Haynes pushed the ultimate bully, Williams, all over the schoolyard, made the two-time Wimbledon champ look pathetically out of place. "I don't think it's really my game," Haynes explained after. "It's really the will." Williams hadn't played a match since May, and even battered champs know how to retrieve their conviction in mid-match; slowly, you could see Serena wake up to herself, her surroundings, her opponent. She bludgeoned Haynes in the end, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, ensuring that she wouldn't be the biggest story of the day. No, that honor stayed with Greek hero Eleni Daniilidou, who unlike the many -- including me -- who picked Justine Henin-Hardenne to pull off the first Paris-London double since Graf, knew fully well that she could play with the game's hottest player.
After all, Daniilidou had beaten Henin-Hardenne the only other time the two had played on grass. "I was just really happy to play with her," Daniilidou said, and she looked it, matching the 2005 French Open champ backhand for gorgeous backhand, dictating the pace, 76th-ranked but clearly deserving of the 7-6, 2-6, 7-5 victory. Why? She believed more. Henin-Hardenne didn't play a grass-court tune-up, and she aggravated her enduring hamstring injury in practice the last few days. Usually the mentally strongest one on any court, the 2000 Wimbledon finalist buckled first. But in essence, her conviction had melted away before the match, and she went into the match hoping to find it. Not good. "I knew when I came here without any matches that it would be very difficult for myself," Henin-Hardenne said. "I did hope that I could get a few matches to come better in the tournament, but ... the draw didn't help me. But that's life."
Not for the other French Open champion. Unlike many of his clay-court peers, Rafael Nadal has decided to play Wimbledon, to like himself on grass, to believe that he can play well here -- and on Tuesday it showed. In his Centre Court debut, Nadal showed none of the trepidation of a clay-court chauvinist, muscling aside the potentially difficult Vince Spadea, 6-4, 6-3, 6-0. Nadal's no fool, not publicly anyway; after the win, he acknowledged that "Wimbledon is special," that he likes to play on grass, and insisted, "I think I cannot win this year, no?"
Don't be fooled. Somewhere in that double-negative, an even bigger belief is already starting to grow.
DEADPAN OF THE DAY
Brit Tim Henman again put his loyal and exhausted fans through a meat grinder Tuesday, beating Jarkko Nieminen, 3-6, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2. Centre Court was again the usual hub of Henmania, a flag-waving, face-painted cauldron of hope and fear. And as usual, Henman's parents, Anthony and Jane, showed about as much animation as a pair of potatoes.
At the post-match news conference:
Q: Your family were put through the mill tonight. Henman: Is that anything unusual? Q: Looked a bit agitated tonight. Henman: Who? Q: Your whole family. Henman: They looked agitated? Q: Yes. Henman: You must have been looking at the wrong people.
MATCH TO WATCH
Centre Court, first match on: Mark Philippoussis vs. Marat Safin. Huge serves, pouffy hair, a mad Russian and thou. The fireworks begin at 1 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time.