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TENNIS

Justine Henin makes an early exit at Indian Wells

The former No. 1-ranked player, a wild-card entry at the BNP Paribas Open because of her recent 18-month retirement, suffers a second-round loss to Argentina’s Gisela Dulko.

March 12, 2010|By Diane Pucin

As Justine Henin's unthreatening serve caused Gisela Dulko few problems, as Henin's usually glorious backhand was unable to regularly penetrate Dulko's steady game, as the crowd tried speaking Henin's language by yelling "allez" (French for "go"), Henin simply became more average.

The 27-year-old Belgian could find no part of her all-around game that was better than what was offered by Dulko, and so it was the 25-year-old Argentine who walked away with a 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 second-round win Friday at the BNP Paribas Open.

Because Henin has no computer ranking after her 18-month retirement, the woman who was ranked No. 1 in the world when she stepped away from tennis in May 2008 was technically the underdog to the 31st-seeded Dulko at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

But Henin's creativity was often stifled by simple mistakes — forehands that took flight and sailed well past the baseline or well-conceived drop shots that went into the net instead of over it.

For a while it seemed the tournament would lose another of the top draws when 10th-seeded Maria Sharapova dropped her first set and was down, 2-0, in the second against Vera Dushevina of Russia. Playing in Stadium 2, an unaccustomed secondary placement for the onetime Wimbledon champion, Sharapova came back to win, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2.

Two other top-seeded women, No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 4 Elena Dementieva, also each lost a set before moving on.

Wozniacki beat Long Beach's Vania King, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, and Dementieva beat Bulgaria's Olga Govortsova 6-4, 4-6, 6-0. King lamented the loss because, she said, "I felt I was the better player for a set and a half and then I kind of lost my nerve."

In the most notable upset of the tournament, British qualifier Elena Baltacha knocked out seventh-seeded Li Na of China, 7-6 (6), 2-6, 7-6 (7). It was the first time a British woman beat a top-10 player since 1998.

On the men's side, a notable winner was American James Blake, who easily beat Spain's Daniel Gimeno-Traver 6-3, 6-2.

Dulko, who has career wins over top-10 players such as Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, was gloriously pleased with the win, saying that Henin has always been her favorite player. On the other hand, Dulko said, her attitude was more positive than it might have been in the past.

"I was a different player than the last time we played," Dulko said. "Maybe last time I was a little bit more looking at how she was playing and looking more at her than looking at me."

Henin seemed to take the loss hard, at least immediately after she finished. She left the court without waving to the crowd. "It was a tough day," Henin said. "It was a difficult time for me on the court. But it's part of our life."

It was not an easy close-out for Dulko. She served for the match for the first time in the eighth game of the third set and could win only one point in a game she started by serving a double fault. When Henin easily held serve to bring the score to 4-5, there was an upbeat sound of anticipation and more "allez" cries from fans.

But on the first two points of that final game, Henin struck a backhand wide and then a forehand long. In that span of about 30 seconds, Dulko straightened her shoulders and was willing to put a second serve deep into the box that Henin returned long. Henin couldn't force Dulko to get nervous, and the final shot of the match was a cross-court forehand passing shot for a winner by Dulko.

"It was big for me," Dulko said. "Justine is a great champion. I think it's my favorite player on tour right now. I'm really happy."

Henin was just matter-of-fact.

"I never really got into a good rhythm," she said. "I never really found my way to win this match."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter/mepucin

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