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Henin-Hardenne Recovers for Gold

August 22, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — It was a sight Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium couldn't have imagined a few months ago. There she was Saturday, standing near the net on center court at the Olympic Tennis Center, staring at a tennis ball representing a gold medal dropping softly out of a dark Greek sky and bouncing high in front of her. Across the net, her opponent, Amelie Mauresmo of France, was also staring at the ball, awaiting the inevitable.

Henin-Hardenne smashed the ball past Mauresmo to win the Olympic women's singles final. It was a relatively easy effort, a 6-3, 6-3 victory hammered down in 78 minutes. The hard part was getting there.

Henin-Hardenne, 22, was on top of the world early this year, ranked No. 1 and winning the Australian Open.

Then she contracted a virus that caused extreme fatigue. After losing in the second round of the French Open, she dropped out and has spent the time recuperating.

"After months of pain and depression, I realize how fortunate I am just to be on the court," she said Saturday.

Henin-Hardenne's potent backhand was operating at full power, she served well, had three service breaks and never exhibited any sign of fatigue.

That was especially telling considering she had played a 2-hour, 44-minute semifinal match a day earlier, coming back from a 5-1 deficit in the final set against Anastasia Myskina to win, 8-6.

Mauresmo said she was impressed by what she saw.

Henin-Hardenne "really prepared herself well," said Mauresmo, "so she could come back at a very high level."

Coming back to stand on the Olympic podium turned out to be an emotional experience for Henin-Hardenne.

"When you play in a Grand Slam event, you play for yourself," she said. "This is different. It feels like you are playing for your whole country."

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