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Steve Flink: It's Justine Time

10/1/2007 8:31:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Put another one in the victory column for the redoubtable Justine Henin. The world No. 1 went to Stuttgart last week, captured her eighth singles championship of the year, and extended her winning streak to 3 consecutive tournaments and 16 matches in a row. She has not lost since Wimbledon. She is masterful at picking her spots, conserving her energy, and raising her game at almost every tournament she enters. Tip your hat to the industrious woman from Belgium, who is in a class by herself right now as the best woman player in the world.

But what caught my eye as I followed Henin's Stuttgart progress from afar was the fact that she recorded her eighth career triumph in a row over Jelena Jankovic. Jankovic is, after all, ranked No. 3 in the world, and her results across the last two seasons-particularly in 2007--- have been remarkably good. At 22, Jankovic has gained quite a bit of experience, and with her capacity to mix up her game, defend unrelentingly, and drive her two-hander deceptively down the line, she is a tough customer. The Serbian has a large heart, an admirable zest for the game, a willingness to put it on the line against anyone. She is essentially a fearless competitor.

And yet, she can't find a way to beat Henin. No one can say she has not given the game's greatest female player a lot of strenuous and nerve wracking tests. The first five times they clashed--- from 2005 until earlier this year--- Jankovic took a set off Henin every time. She came agonizingly close to toppling Henin in the penultimate round of the 2006 U.S. Open, building a 6-4, 4-2 lead before imploding and losing ten games in a row. Always at crunch time, Henin has responded, and Jankovic has not. Finally, in their sixth meeting, Henin crushed Jankovic 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinals of the French Open this year. But then Jankovic fought hard before falling 7-6 (3), 7-5 in the final of Toronto, and she lost again by the identical scores of 7-6 (2), 7-5 in Stuttgart. Henin was serving at 1-4, 0-40 in the second set but manufactured an impressive comeback, while Jankovic injured herself with some bad misses at inopportune moments.

Why does Henin keep prevailing over Jankovic? To be sure, she is quite simply a better player, and a competitor of the highest order. She is not afraid to lose, and increasingly seems to enjoy working her way out of some tight corners and coming through against formidable rivals like Jankovic. Henin is not only the most well rounded player in the women's game but she also is a top of the line match player. That is a difficult combination to beat.

Nevertheless, Jankovic, with her resourcefulness and growing court sense, has demonstrated over and over again that she can push Henin pretty close to the brink. She probably should be at least 2-6 against the world No. 1 rather than 0-8. Some of this is surely psychological. Some of these wins and losses come down to technique and tactics but that is not the entire story. The battle is also played out in the mind, and history has a way of repeating itself. In the tight situations when their matches could swing in either direction, Henin shows steely resolve while Jankovic seems to succumb to anxiety.

Let's look at a number of other rivalries from days gone by. Arthur Ashe understandably could not solve the riddle of the great Rod Laver. He lost to his revered rival at the 1959 U.S. Nationals. They did not meet again until the Open Tennis commenced in 1968. From that juncture on, Ashe lost to the Australian eleven times in a row in official tournament competition. To be sure, Laver was the superior player, and he was better at playing the percentages. He drove Ashe crazy with his finely carved backhand chip return crosscourt, exposing the American's weakness on the low forehand volley.

Eventually, Ashe toppled Laver twice in tournaments and once more in a World Team Cup match, and yet it was not until 1974 that he finally got on the board in that series. In many ways, for a long time, Laver had Ashe beaten before they even walked on the court.

Consider Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who celebrated the greatest rivalry ever in tennis and one of the best ever in sports. In their 1973-88 series, they played each other 80 times, with Navratilova recording 43 victories and Evert winning 37. Martina was the preeminent attacking player while Evert was better than anyone else from the back of the court. Evert dominated the rivalry early on with her unrelenting consistency, capturing 20 of their first 24 contests. Later, from late 1982 until early in 1985, Navratilova was the victor 13 consecutive times against Evert. Thereafter, it became quite competitive again.

To be sure, Evert was the best player in the world for much of the time she dominated Navratilova, while Martina was dominating the game in the 1980's when she built the long winning streak over Chris. So there was a certain amount of logic to the results. But clearly both women went through stages where they did not believe they could win against each other. Both players were fully aware of each other's psychological vulnerabilities at different times.

When Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini started their rivalry in 1985, it seemed likely that they would trade wins and losses with frequency. That was not the case initially. Graf won their first eleven contests and eventually won 29 of 40 career meetings. Graf demonstrated over time that she was a decidedly better player, but the fact remained that Sabatini beat her five times in a row during one stretch. Graf would close the series on a run of eight straight wins. Unmistakably, Graf's speed of foot and her lethal flat forehand gave her the edge but, more than that, it was Graf's deep inner belief and impenetrable mental toughness that punched holes in the psyche of Sabatini.

How could Pete Sampras finish with a 4-6 career record against Richard Krajicek? Surely, Krajicek presented Sampras with serious problems because he played the game in such a similar fashion, serving-and-volleying purposefully, never backing away from his game plan. Starting with his surprise win over Sampras at Wimbledon in the 1996 quarterfinals, Krajicek defeated the American four straight times before Sampras struck back to win their last two head-to-head battles. Unquestionably, Krajicek matched up well against Sampras, but just as importantly he was one of the few who went on court thinking he could bring down a towering champion, and that was no small thing. And Sampras was not priming for Krajicek the way he did for the likes of Andre Agassi or Boris Becker. Had they met more on big occasions, Sampras would have inevitably performed better and won more frequently.

Rivalries play out in so many different ways, so Jelena Jankovic should not despair about her losing pattern against Justine Henin. She has unquestionably squandered her share of opportunities these last few years, wavering when it has mattered most, blinking when victory has been within her sights. In the near future, it won't be easy for Jankovic to stop Henin, who is playing the best tennis of her life. But with her ingenuity and determination, with her flexibility and creativity, Jankovic will break through sooner or later. I am convinced of that.

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