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Justine vs. Serena
by Steve Flink

Justine Henin beat Serena Williams 6-4, 6-3 during their Roland Garros clash.
What are we to make of the Justine Henin-Serena Williams quarterfinal clash at Roland Garros? How much does it tell us about the status of both players at the moment? Will Henin take away something substantial away from her triumph, and is this loss going to hurt Serena in a significant way?

The way I look at it, Henin's 6-4, 6-3 victory over her American adversary was confirmation that she is clearly the superior player on clay. It was evidence that she is more comfortable and versatile than Serena on the slow surface, that she is decidedly better at constructing points, that she is a masterful performer on the red clay who gives little away while still setting the tempo and taking the initiative whenever possible. Henin knew when she completed her emphatic straight set win over Williams that there was still much work to do in Paris. The win only put her in the penultimate round, and the three time French Open champion is not going to be content with that kind of showing.

Be that as it may, Henin did an excellent job against Serena. She was clearly cognizant of the fact that she let Williams off the hook the last time they met. On that occasion, Henin was ahead 6-0, 5-4, 40-15 in the final of Miami on hard courts. But she failed to put a first serve into play on both match points and went on to lose in three sets. All credit should go to Serena for salvaging what looked like a lost cause, but Henin contributed heavily to her own demise on that occasion.

This time around, Henin was determined to make amends for that setback in Florida. She broke Serena in the opening game of the match and held her serve the rest of the way to close out the first set. That was no easy task but her discipline on serve and her combativeness in the baseline exchanges pulled her through. Henin got the immediate break in the first game of the second set before Williams struck back to take the next two games. Serena's only serious chance to make a real impression was when Henin served at 1-2,0-30 but Henin stood her ground obstinately, knowing that she could not afford to give Williams the luxury of a lead.

From there on in, Henin took over confidently, winning five of the last six games to seal the verdict, striking the ball cleanly, getting wonderful depth to keep backing Serena up. Time and again, Williams was on her heels, trying to drive her way out of danger but seldom succeeding. Understandably, given the consistency Henin was displaying, Williams started pressing. And when she did that, she inevitably made more mistakes. Perhaps Serena was hoping Henin would falter at the end of the second set, but the enterprising Belgian was far too solid and unerring. In the last two games of a largely one-sided contest, Henin collected eight of the last nine points with steely determination and utter conviction.

So where does this setback leave Serena? Surely she was not thrilled with her showing, and yet the defeat was not devastating. Williams did win Roland Garros five years ago when she was dominating the game, but she has seldom played her most inspired tennis on the slow courts in Paris. In fact, her rivals know this is the best place to meet Serena in a major. She did not play frequently enough on the clay on her way to Paris, and there was no way Serena was going to bluff her way past Henin under the circumstances.

The chance is gone for Serena to win a Grand Slam in 2007. But the Australian Open champion will still head into Wimbledon better off than she was at the start of the French Open. She needed some tough matches and she got five of them in Paris. When she gets back on the grass, the two time former Wimbledon champion will be ready to make a serious run at another crown. She will not be discouraged by what happened here in Paris because she recognized all along how tough a task it would be for her to succeed. Had she been upset in an early round, Serena might have been more apprehensive about Wimbledon, but she understands that losing to Henin is no disgrace.

The view here is that Serena will be the favorite at Wimbledon. If she plays her best brand of tennis on the lawns, she can take the title. Having made an astonishing comeback at the outset of this season with her triumph in Melbourne, having come through to take the game's fifth most prestigious event in Miami, having restored her inner belief, Serena Williams will put her Roland Garros meeting with Henin quickly behind her. And she will move forward without regret or hesitation.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com. He will be reporting regularly from Roland Garros.

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