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Saturday, August 21, 2004
Henin-Hardenne tops Mauresmo in final

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Healthy at last, Justine Henin-Hardenne is back at the top of her game. And she has a gold medal to prove it.

In a No. 1 vs. No. 2 final that wasn't really close, the top-ranked Henin-Hardenne overwhelmed France's Amelie Mauresmo 6-3, 6-3 on Saturday night to win Belgium's first gold of these Olympics.

Sidelined by a viral infection, she came to Athens having won exactly one match in the past four months. She hadn't played at all since May, when she was upset in the second round of the French Open as the defending champion.

"It's difficult for you to imagine the states of depression I went through," Henin-Hardenne said. "I realize how fortunate I am just to be able to be on the court. So I'm really glad to have had the chance to be able to give 100 percent."

Did she ever.

With IOC president Jacques Rogge, a Belgian, in the stands, Henin-Hardenne did everything right, building a 25-9 edge in winners and never facing a break point.

"To come back at this level after a few months of being away -- she really took her time to be sure she would immediately be at a high level," said Mauresmo, whose 10-match winning streak ended.

The final was so lopsided it took all of 78 minutes, which surely made Fernando Gonzalez envious.

He was on court for a total of 7 hours, 8 minutes Saturday, with only the all-too-brief interlude of the women's final and medal ceremony.

Before, he outlasted Taylor Dent of the United States 6-4, 2-6, 16-14 to win the bronze in singles. After, he and Nicolas Massu claimed Chile's first gold in any sport, at any Olympics, by beating Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuettler of Germany 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-4 in a match that ended at 2:39 a.m. Sunday.

Henin-Hardenne didn't have to work nearly that hard to put together six straight victories at the Olympics, dropping only one set along the way. That was in her semifinal against No. 3 Anastasia Myskina on Friday night, when she trailed 5-1 in the third set before rallying to win 8-6.

Myskina didn't recover from that disaster, losing the bronze medal match to unseeded Alicia Molik of Australia 6-3, 6-4.

"Emotionally, I was drained," Myskina said. "I didn't have any gas left. I couldn't find any motivation."

That never seems to be a problem for Henin-Hardenne.

She outslugged Mauresmo from the baseline on long exchanges. She sneaked up to the net every so often for crisp volleys. She returned superbly, breaking Mauresmo in the first and last games of the opening set, and again for a 2-0 edge in the second.

Henin-Hardenne's fitness and focus were tested there, when Mauresmo deflected five break points. On the sixth, Henin-Hardenne ripped a forehand into a corner, and Mauresmo's response drifted 10 feet out.

"At no moment did I have any doubt during the match," Henin-Hardenne said. "Everything happened very well, very fluidly, from the beginning to the end."

Already up a set and 4-1 in the second, she had a break point that would have put her within a game of the gold. She slapped a backhand into the net, and cracked her racket on the court.

Never satisfied.

That drive is why she won the French Open and U.S. Open last year, then the Australian Open as part of a 16-match winning streak to start 2004. Then the illness came, and she wasn't the same player -- until now.

"She didn't give me a chance to play my game," Mauresmo said.

She'll cherish her silver medal, but it does represent another instance of falling just shy of the prize she truly wanted.

Mauresmo's breakthrough came at the 1999 Australian Open, where she lost in the final. She's been a quarterfinalist at her last seven majors, making it to the semifinals three times, but never further.

She had a little bit of extra time to think about the setting before Saturday night's final, because the preceding match on center court was Gonzalez's 3-hour struggle against Dent.

When it was over, Gonzalez somehow had enough energy left to swat tennis balls into the stands, a souvenir of thanks to fans chanting, "Chi-chi-chi! Le-le-le! Vi-va Chi-le!" Gonzalez, who upset Andy Roddick in the third round, saved two match points.

"I can't believe I lost," Dent said. "It was longest match I've played in terms of a set. It was 16-14, is that it? It was a good match. It was a shame I lost, but it was fun to be a part of."

Sunday's final also is a Chile vs. United States matchup: No. 10 Massu against unseeded Mardy Fish, the only American tennis player who'll leave Athens with a medal.

Gonzalez's singles match started at 5 p.m., and he was on court well past midnight, helping Massu save four match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker. When the doubles match finally ended, Gonzalez and Massu fell into a heap on court, hugging.