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A Great Champion
by Steve Flink

The great champions define themselves by how well they perform at the four major events. They know that their place on the historical ladder of the sport will depend largely on what they accomplish when the stakes are highest. They realize what it takes to thrive at the majors, recognize the commitment required to make it through one of these demanding two week events, and comprehend how to survive under the harsh glare of the spotlight.

Justine Henin is indisputably a great champion, a player who keeps moving beyond herself to loftier territory, the most professional competitor in her business. Her latest triumph at the French Open underlines her status a champion of a very high order. She has now secured four French Open singles championships in a strikingly productive five year stretch. In the history of this illustrious event, only Chrissie Evert (with a record seven singles championships), Steffi Graf (with six), and Margaret Smith Court (with five) have won more women's singles titles than the redoubtable Henin, who is tied with Helen Wills Moody at four. She has claimed the world's most prestigious clay court crown three years in a row, joining Wills Moody (1928-30), Hilde Sperling (1935-37), and Monica Seles (1990-92) as the only players to realize that significant feat.

And yet, there is more. For the past two years, Henin has not conceded a single set in her championship runs, registering 17 straight set match victories in a row since recouping from 3-5 in the final set and saving two match points against Svetlana Kuznetsova two years ago in the round of 16. What do all these numbers prove? Irrefutably, the figures demonstrate that Henin possesses not only class but immense consistency, not only determination but astonishing discipline, not only grace but guile.

In her 6-1, 6-2 final round triumph this time over No. 7 seed Anna Ivanovic at Roland Garros, Henin took on a player of considerable promise. Ivanovic had toppled the No. 3 seed and 2006 finalist Kuznetsova and No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova in her previous two encounters, and thus approached the final with encouragement. Ivanovic had beaten Kuznetsova and Sharapova in decisive fashion, removing the former 6-0, 3-6, 6-1 before stopping the latter 6-2, 6-1. That was no mean feat. Kuznetsova was the U.S. Open champion in 2004, and Sharapova was victorious at Wimbledon in 2004 and the U.S. Open in 2006.

The 19-year-old Serbian has one of the biggest ground games in the sport, moves well for someone who is 6'1", and seemed undaunted by playing Henin at the outset of her first major final. Releasing some sparkling forehand winners and going for her shots unabashedly, she broke Henin in the opening game of the match. But, after leading 40-0 in the following game, Ivanovic lost her serve and a good part of her nerve. Gradually, Henin found her range and began picking her adversary apart, dictating the tempo persuasively, controlling the rallies with excellent depth and execution.

Once Henin went to work so commandingly, an increasingly apprehensive Ivanovic could not stay with her. Henin won eight games in a row after losing her serve at the start, and swept 22 of 28 points from the middle of the opening set until 2-0 in the second. The 25-year-old has never lost a set in four Roland Garros finals, accounting for a wide range of opponents in those title confrontations. In 2003, she upended her sprightly countrywoman Kim Clijsters. Two years later, she subdued the explosive Mary Pierce. Last year, Henin stopped the heavy hitting and well rounded Kuznetsova. This time around, she dealt admirably with the tall and imposing Ivanovic.

Henin has six majors in her collection, having come through at the 2003 U.S. Open and the 2004 Australian Open in addition to her multitude of Roland Garros triumphs. She has been beaten four times in Grand Slam finals, falling against Venus Williams (2001) and Amelie Mauresmo (2006) at Wimbledon, bowing against Mauresmo at the 2006 Australian Open, and losing to Maria Sharapova last year at the U.S. Open. Winning six out of ten is not a bad record.

But what is particularly impressive about her Roland Garros record is not losing a final on the slow red clay. Moreover, the fact that she has not dropped a set in her last two championship campaigns indicates that she could well win this tournament a few more times, or at least once more. She is also fully capable of finally winning Wimbledon over the next couple of years, and that is the lone major to elude her grasp. I believe she is so dedicated to her craft and so willing to make the monumental sacrifices necessary to succeed at the majors that she will win at least two more Grand Slam events before she puts down the racket, and maybe as many as four.

Justine Henin is a better match player and better technically than she has ever been. Her game is more multi-faceted, her attacking instincts sharper, her point playing creativity increasingly sophisticated. Her volleying off both sides is the best in the women's game. Make no mistake: she did not sweep through an excellent field at this latest Roland Garros by accident. She cast aside Serena Williams, who had beaten her in the final of Miami. She struck down Jelena Jankovic--- a player who had pushed her to three sets in all five previous meetings--- 6-2, 6-2. And then she upended a surging Ivanovic.

I have a strong feeling we have not yet seen the best of Justine Henin.

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

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