Justine of Arc

by: Peter Bodo | November 13, 2006

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Hola, Tribe. Just finished my ESPN post, which probably will be up at the site tomorrow, if not sooner. It addresses the issue of size in tennis, and given the events that transpired in Madrid over the weekend, you may have a good idea of where I went with the subject.

It's a drag that the YEC's of the WTA and ATP are not just back-to-back, but butting up against each other; it makes it hard to give the women their just due (so what else is new?). And this time, it's exactly what they deserve - credit. Having found their way out of the Black Hole of the Staples Center (how about the name of that joint? Why would I want to buy a ticket to an office-supplies warehouse?), the women ripped off their oxygen tanks and cast aside their HazMat suits. They had a rocky start in Madrid, what with Amelie Mauresmo playing such a stinker to get things underway, but the arc from there was ever-upward, until the tournament blew up like a gorgeous fireworks in the final. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a more competitive concluding match.

What it was, though, was an awesome display of tennis played at a level that, just a few years ago, might have seemed unattainable in a women's game dominated by groundstrokes and baseliners. There's no doubt that the top women now are playing tennis as full of tone and timbre as anyone of either gender has produced. When Billie Jean King shut her eyes 20 years ago and tried to envision where she would like to see the women's game go, athletically, Justine Henin-Hardenne vs. Amelie Mauresmo would have been the ones prancing around, whacking forehands and spearing volleys, on the backs of her eyelids. Women's tennis has matured, fully.

About the match: It was a stirring exhibition of all-court tennis, restoring the good name of that style. For on both tours, the term "all-court" has become emasculated and subverted to mean nothing more than aggressive baseline play. But it was uplifting to watch Mauresmo and 2H attack at every opportunity, while whaling away from the baseline when conditions militated against the attack.

Jda The key, to my eyes, was Mauresmo's decision to stick with her game even though it's the same game that 2H likes to pursue. And I don't think anyone can beat 2H at quick-strike, versatile, speed-based tennis. Given the fact that Amelie is a few inches taller than the lithe but frail 2H, and built like a toilette de brique, she might have been better off trying to muscle and wear down Henin-Hardenne. Mauresmo knows all about topspin - drawing 2H into some long rallies with looping, neutral topspin shots could be a productive strategy.

Instead, Mauresmo went for the kill, which is exactly what Henin-Hardenne likes to do, especially when she can do it from a counter-puncher's position. I'd like to see Mauresmo spend more time on the set-up, and less on the kill. She has the strength and stamina to do that (remember, it was a fairly quick indoor court). I suppose she didn't feel that she needed to exploit those advantages in order to win.

In winning, Henin-Hardenne became the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1993 to reach all five major women's finals (the four Grand Slams, and the  YEC). Curiously, perhaps, I would take Mauresmo's record in a heartbeat, and she's No. 1 for the year to me. It's pretty simple: Unless it's one of those years when no woman has won more majors than the other contenders, the player who has two or more majors is the best. The final rankings, with Henin-Hardenne on top, don't always reflect a reality upon which most players agree: the year is defined by your performance in Grand Slams, and winning one is preferable to losing in two finals, and so on. . .

Henin-Hardenne is a complicated young lady and a self-ordained martyr. I'm not enamored of the way she always seems to have some potential built-in excuse in the event that she loses. She's managed her career in a way that enables her to pop up and make big statements according to her plans, rather than anyone else's, but part of being a great player  (see my recent post, The Crucible of Risk) is  going  out of yourself to engage the plans or challenges posed by others, jettisoning what might be most accurately and bloodlessly described as "career management."  It's a tricky issue, but the bottom line is that I'd like to see 2H become less ambiguous and manipulative.

By the same token, I was heartened by the way Mauresmo consolidated her position this year, completing her remarkable transformation from a spectacularly talented by bafflingly anxiety-prone, flawed competitor into a warrior princess. She could probably use the competitor's equivalent of a caffeine boost at the start of tournaments, just to make her own life easier. But it appears that she's evolved into a player who shows up to answer the call, bringing none of the baggage that some of her contemporaries lug around in the kind of bet-hedging that is so foreign to the champion's spirit as it has been defined by the likes of King, Chris Evert, Graf and even the pre-hiatus Martina Hingis, among others (Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario or Gabriela Sabatini, anyone?).

Mauresmo is shaping up like a woman who will keep her rivals honest next year, and that's just what the talent-rich but overly complicated women's game needs.

P.S. - Miguel Seabra has filed his first post from Shanghai. I'll be posting it later today, for your evening reading pleasure. I'm off now, to take Luke to the dentist. Routine check-up, thank God!

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