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Saturday, March 31, 2007
Serena solves Henin, on her own, in final

By Bonnie DeSimone
Special to ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- It would have been hard to find two more different-looking athletes than the two women who stood on the Sony Ericsson Open awards podium Saturday, smiling and chit-chatting, the old rusty hatchet apparently buried.

If you were seeing them for the first time, which car would you take off the lot for a three-hour drive, the flashy, broad-shouldered sports utility vehicle or the nifty low-to-the-ground sports car? Both Serena Williams and Justine Henin are champions, with superbly engineered games that bear little resemblance to each other.

Serena Williams and Justine Henin
Serena Williams, left, lost the first seven games of the final before rallying to beat Justine Henin.
One thing they obviously share is pride in their psychological fortitude, which is why the final didn't feature any third-party intervention in the form of on-court coaching, the WTA experiment that began last fall and is continuing this season up until the French Open.

Williams recognizes this for the made-for-TV sideshow it is and calls a coach only when her opponent does, as a sort of mild spoof on leveling the playing field. A family visit -- why not? She's done some professional acting and no doubt appreciates the theatrical impact of a cameo by her father or her sister, both of whom served as coaches during this event.

Henin, who has worked with coach Carlos Rodriguez since she was 14 years old, expresses something close to contempt for the concept. "I think I'm old enough now to know what I have to do on the court," she said. "I don't need [Rodriguez] beside me to tell me. I know what I have to do.

"I didn't see a lot of top players using it. Maybe for players that are not as high ranked, maybe they need it, but I don't think it helps the players themselves."

In fact, most of these on-court consultations have amounted to rather banal pep talks. If ever there was a situation that seemed to call for that, it was when Williams lost the first set at love -- only the fourth time in her career she's been the hole in the bagel.

Richard Williams made his way down from the stands, notebook in hand. He stood at the mouth of the tunnel looking expectantly at his daughter, but Serena stared straight ahead, writing her own script.

"I'm all about competing," she said later. "That's the beauty of the game, is to figure it out by yourself. You know, you're down 6-0, you're down two match points and you're able to come back. And I was able to do it on my own, not by calling out my coach.

"That's what tennis to me is all about. It's about you versus the other player, nothing else."

On-court coaching has been touted as a TV-friendly spectacle, another way to build personalities for the casual fan. But isn't it more revealing and engaging to watch an athlete manage herself as Williams did Saturday?

The mid-match comeback is truly an impenetrable process anyway for those of us who have never tried to collect ourselves while in pain, or humiliated, or baffled, sitting alone in front of a packed stadium. That observed mystique is far more engaging than hearing a coach tell a player to relax, or move their feet.

Many players, male and female, oppose on-court coaching on the grounds of tradition. Andre Agassi probably best summed up that constituency at his farewell press conference last year.

"You're out there alone," he said. "You're playing a sport that requires you to problem-solve. It requires you to do it in somewhat of an emotional state. It's a bit of life there. You learn to trust yourself and you learn to push yourself."

"… you're down 6-0, you're down two match points and you're able to come back. And I was able to do it on my own, not by calling out my coach. That's what tennis to me is all about. It's about you versus the other player, nothing else."
-- Serena Williams

But there's another subtext, and Henin's acerbic assessment addressed it: the raging gender stereotypes raised when coaches parachute into a match. It sends the message that women need their hands held, and men do not. That perception is further strengthened by the fact that women's coaches are overwhelmingly male.

Women begin playing tennis at a high level when they're still young girls. Too many of them have been tethered to oafish characters while they're learning the game. Henin is not one of them; she has grown up under Rodriguez' tutelage, and he has given her the ego-tools she needs to be a self-sufficient competitor.

"The goal of Carlos is I take a little of my own responsibilities on the court," Henin said before the final. "So it wouldn't help me if he comes to me at the end of the set and give me another solution, I have to find it by myself."

Mental toughness, as Williams said Saturday, often springs from a person's experience off the court. She was probably referring to her own experience growing up in Compton. Henin, raised halfway around the world, has had her own personal challenges. These women, a world No. 1 and a former world No. 1 who wants to reclaim her place, are well-prepared professionals, not baby birds craning their necks up from the nest and waiting for a few morsels during set breaks.

At a time when all four Grand Slams have agreed to dole out equal prize money to men and women, on-court coaching is a regressive step, as unnecessary and inappropriate as the fishnet-and-stiletto clad dancers who provided pre-match entertainment in Miami. Tennis players deserve better than to be treated as damsels in distress.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.