A change in the wind (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday June 5, 2007 5:56PM; Updated: Tuesday June 5, 2007 5:56PM
Not even a year ago, Williams was ranked No. 140, struggling with her chronically injured left knee and barely playing; her diamond-sharp win over top seed Maria Sharapova in the '07 Australian Open final may be the most remarkable comeback the sport has seen since Andre Agassi, Paris, 1999.
Then, in her next tournament in March, Williams hammered Sharapova again and saved two match points to crush Henin in the Key Biscayne, Fla., final -- the worst beating she'd put on Henin in nine meetings. Williams arrived in Paris last month with only 21 matches under her belt for '07, believing that she didn't need to play tournaments to stir her clay game to life. "I can definitely do it practicing," she said on Sunday.
She wasn't just showing off the usual family cockiness. Together with her sister Venus, Serena has always been deliberately opaque in her public utterances, erecting a barrier of bromides to keep the world at bay.
But she came into this year's French Open looser, freer, than at any time since she began her career a decade ago, bantering with the press in a way she almost never has, describing herself as "cynical", speaking openly of the impact of her sister Yetunde's death, bemoaning the fact that she'd never been tagged during her childhood "Duck, Duck, Goose" games. "Man, I need to talk to a shrink about this," she laughed. "I was never the goose!"
Even after Tuesday's loss, Williams was uncharacteristically candid about the need to go back to work, to practice now for Wimbledon in the hateful South Florida heat. Then she said something very rare, dispelling any doubt about the damage Henin left behind.
"I just pretty much stood back and let her take advantage of me," Williams said with her parting words. "And I feel violated."
Henin, too, emerged from the match a bit transformed. The world No. 1 showed none of the jitters she demonstrated while blowing that final in Miami, and engaged in none of the gamesmanship that has long marred her reputation.
On Sunday, the 25-year-old Henin revealed that she had recently ended her years-long estrangement from her father, Jose, and three siblings. According to her coach of 11 years, Carlos Rodriguez, that -- and Henin's pending divorce from husband Pierre-Yves Hardenne -- has removed a psychic weight and helped her play without fear.
"She's more open," said Rodriguez after Tuesday's match. "She's, uh -- I don't know in English how you say, but in French it's epanouissement [meaning "a blossoming"]. She's free from inside to say, to do, to react and to move like she wants. She's not anymore scared. She's showed all the people how she is."
Asked the last time he'd seen Henin like this, Rodriguez said, "Never. I discover a new person in the last four to six months. I hope that she can keep the same balance that is now on the court, also outside, in life."
Henin denied none of that Tuesday. "I did trust myself a little bit more," she said. "I really thought I could win this match. And that wasn't the case in Miami ... Different person from last year, probably, and much better."
Maybe. Henin indeed comported herself like a champion against Williams, but we'll find out more in Thursday's semifinal when she plays another opponent -- Jelena Jankovic -- who once accused her of poor sportsmanship. The real French Open has begun now, and this is why we watch. The game tells all we need to know.