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Henin could make the story short

Facing a women's tennis field of big talents, the 5-foot-5 French Open champion could complete a career Grand Slam at Wimbledon.

June 25, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — The many casual tennis fans who find Justine Henin remote, might find her quite less remote two weeks hence.

They might even have to brush up on the peculiar subject of Henin, whose six major titles contradict her durable obscurity.

Win this Wimbledon, and Henin will possess the full career Grand-Slam china set. She'll gain induction into an Open-era sorority of only Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and arguably Billie Jean King, whose Australian Open title came just before the Open era.

This, for a player who pleads no interest in such matters, saying at the French Open, "I don't want to be in the record books." This, for a player whose detached personality -- plus winning four of her six majors on the lunar Parisian clay -- has made her only semi-familiar to all but the fervent. Asked in French about how French Open finalist Ana Ivanovic "seems to be a very nice girl," Henin cracked in French, "And I seem to be a very nasty person, don't I?" Win this, and she'll become a more famous seemingly nasty person.

That's why the 5-foot-5 Belgian whiz with the picturesque game stands out at a Wimbledon of the big.

It's a Wimbledon where 5-9 Serena Williams has arrived for the first time since 2005, addressed her feckless French quarterfinal loss to the champion Henin and said, "It's not going to happen again. I mean, it's not going to happen again."

It's a Wimbledon where Serena Williams and Venus Williams will play doubles together for the first time since Wimbledon 2003, so Serena said, "Maybe my volleys will be, like, unbelievable soon."

It's a Wimbledon in which a big former champion with a big chance, 6-2 Maria Sharapova, might resemble a big swan, garb-wise. "You'll be inspired," she said of her tennis wear. "My coach saw it the other day, and he said he started feeding bread to it."

It's a Wimbledon of big disappointment for British tennis fans from the outset, as Scotland's Andy Murray, seeded No. 8, withdrew because of a wrist injury Sunday, saying, "The doctor has advised me not to play and that I probably need about 10 days to be ready. Unfortunately, I don't think it is going to rain for the next 10 days."

And, it's a Wimbledon of big significance as Roger Federer pursues Bjorn Borg's record of five consecutive men's singles titles while trying to edge closer to the lifetime record of seven, shared by William Renshaw from the 19th century and Pete Sampras from the 20th.

That's not to mention the big changes, including the coming retractable roof at Centre Court, the video screens to help players dispute calls, and the bigger prize money for the women, equal to the men.

Yet at the outset, a big defending champion, 5-9 Amelie Mauresmo, said of the little 25-year-old who absolutely owns the French Open, "She's unbeatable the last three or four weeks; let's hope she's not for the next couple."

Mauresmo referred to Henin, who already would have that full dinner set but for Mauresmo in the 2006 final.

With her 2003 U.S. Open and 2004 Australian stashed away and the French pretty much her living room, Henin would've won the 2006 Wimbledon in her second try at a final had Mauresmo not revived herself from Henin's 6-2 first set.

Asked how she felt after that 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 loss, Henin said, "Tired. Oh, I was pretty close to it, so that means it's possible. Yeah, I was just a set away from that. You know, it turned away. I think I can do it. But that's the way it happened. I'm not going to change it now anymore."

A few years' worth of stuff has transpired in the 12 months since that moment, as Henin has dropped a hyphen, a marriage and an estrangement. The 2006 Wimbledon finalist and U.S. Open finalist went by the surname Henin-Hardenne, before she scaled back to Henin and missed the Australian Open as she separated from her husband. Come spring, she reunited with her estranged father and three siblings, the latter turning up in the stands for her rout of Ivanovic in the final of the French Open, a tournament she won in the minimum 14 sets with zero tiebreakers and only one 7-5.

She spoke repeatedly of being "at peace," an ominous sound for the rest of the draw even at Wimbledon, especially given she has reached the final of the last five grand slam tournaments she has entered.

As Henin hovered near a record-book spot she said she doesn't seek, the women's field seemed depleted by pesky injuries to Mauresmo and Sharapova, Kim Clijsters' retirement and, to some degree, the Williams sisters' bow-outs in Paris.

But on Saturday, Mauresmo looked reborn in a 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (7) loss to Henin at the Eastbourne tuneup, while Serena Williams showed up at Wimbledon with an assurance.

"Like I always say, when I'm playing well, it's hard for anyone to beat me," Williams said. "It's just a fact. I think a lot of people understand that. I don't think anyone that has to play me goes home and shouts with joy."

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