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Henin's career is on the rise

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Monday January 22, 2001 10:01 AM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Never mind the two titles she won. Never mind the 13-match winning streak she authored. Or her rise of some 20 places in the rankings. Ask Belgian pro Justine Henin about the highlight of her past three weeks in Australia and her eyes grow wide. "There was this roller coaster on the Gold Coast," she says of a ride near Brisbane called The Roadrunner. "I went on it maybe five or six times. At the beginning it went up and up and up ..."

That's roughly the same trajectory of her young career. Following a stellar junior record, Henin turned pro at Antwerp in 1999 and became just the fifth player to win the first tour event she entered. A few months later she was serving for the match against Lindsay Davenport at the French Open. Even after enduring a litany of injuries -- including a bum wrist -- for the bulk of 2000, she finished last year in the top 40. And on the heels of her sizzling play Down Under, she should be in the top 20 by the end of the Australian Open.

Endowed with a gorgeous, fluid, one-handed backhand and whip of a forehand, Henin's game is easy on the eyes. And belying both her 5-foot-5 physique and her cherubic countenance, she plays a gutsy, attacking game -- like precious few players today, she is as comfortable at the net as she is at the baseline. "There's not really a shot she doesn't have and she's such a fighter," says her coach, Carlos Rodrigues. "She also plays older than her age."

Henin's precocity is hardly surprising given her background. Six years ago, Henin's mother, Francoise, died of cancer. Her father, Jose, a postman, was left to raise four kids. Jose traveled with Justine at the onset of her career, but father and daughter had a rift in 2000. Henin came to Australia with Rodrigues, her fiancé, Yves-Pierre, and an abundance of confidence. "Last year I had injuries and personal problems," she says in English laced with a slight French accent. "Now my head is clear and I feel the sky's the limit."

Still, as roller-coaster buffs know, what goes up must come down, and Sunday Henin landed with a thud. Up a set and a break to a dejected-looking Monica Seles in their fourth-round match at Rod Laver Arena, Henin got a major-league case of the yips. She lost the next four games, dropping 12 points in a row, shanking the most routine shots. She calmed her nerves and found her groove in the third, surging to a 4-2 lead. But once again she wilted under the weight of the moment and went three games without a winning a point. Serving at 4-5, the tension on her face was palpable and, following a bad double fault, she missed three balls she'd ordinarily make in her sleep. Game. Set. Match. Seles, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.

To her credit Henin owned up to her breakdown afterward, conceding that perhaps she was afraid to win. Seles, meanwhile, was thrilled to have survived but acknowledged her good fortune. "She's going to be top 10 by the end of the year if not better," Seles said of Henin. "She's just really coming into her game the last couple of months." In the other words, her ride is just getting started.

Short volleys

The third-round doubles match between Anna Kournikova-Barbara Schett and Shinobu Asagoe-Yuka Yoshida was interrupted Monday when a fan threw a flare onto the court that landed a few yards from Kournikova's feet. Though the Russian claims she never felt scared, the match was delayed and calls immediately came to beef up security here. ... Martina Hingis looked sharp in her fourth-round match against Rita Grande, routing the Italian 6-0, 6-3. Still, it's worth mentioning that the top seed has yet to play an opponent in the top 50. ... Through Monday afternoon here only two players in the men's draw had yet to drop a set: doubles partners Arnaud Clement and Sebastien Grosjean. Grosjean dropped one in the evening in his upset of No. 4 seed Magnus Norman, while Clement kept his streak alive by straight-setting Greg Rusedski. ... Czech doubles player Cyril Suk is suing Tennis Australia for more than $1 million, claiming that he was scalded by an urn at last year's Australian Open. He says he suffered scarring and a "major depressive disorder" on account of the alleged negligence.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will file daily reports through the end of the Australian Open. Click here to send a question to his Mailbag.

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