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Thursday, June 21, 2007
Few, if any, obstacles for Henin

Wimbledon will cough up a number of compelling stories on the women's side next week. In some ways, this is shaping up as Venus Williams' last stand; she's been in five finals, and has won the title three times, but she's tailing off conspicuously, and another first-week loss will dissipate what's left of her aura. It's too bad, because her game, despite all of its frayed ends and loose screws, worked best on grass, the surface most suited to making it up as you go along.

Then there's the defending champion Amelie Mauresmo. Last year, her win in London put her over the top as a legitimate first-tier player, but she failed to build on that new, substantial foundation and has had trouble getting her game together following an appendectomy this spring. Ana Ivanovic showed us a lot at the French Open -- clean, crisp, probing groundstrokes that will enable her to force opponents back on their heels -- if she can play with the same aplomb and focus that she showed at Roland Garros.

But the most intriguing story of The Fortnight is apt to be Justine Henin. She is as different from Andy Roddick as, a Brit might say, chalk is from cheese. But they share one common dilemma: neither has won the tournament that, if it isn't exactly a gimme, is at least a "Yes, I'll take that, thank you very much …"

We know what Boy Andy's problem is: Roger Federer. But Henin has no such obstacle, as the only thing the women's defending champ, Mauresmo, has in common with Federer is exceptional tools. But Federer uses those tools more efficiently and effectively. Oh, Serena Williams might object to this analysis, but after her listless performance against Henin in Paris, any braggadocio on her part will ring hollow. She's going to have to show more bomb than bombast before the skeptics will jump back on her bandwagon -- again.

That Henin hasn't won Wimbledon yet is, to aficionados, a crime against nature. Much as Henin loves Paris, her game is best served on grass, where quickness and finesse count for so much. Tick off some Wimbledon icons and you'll see the similarity: Maria Bueno, Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong, Martina Navratilova, even junior icons, Hana Mandlikova and Jana Novotna. All of them were versatile, swift, inventive players, light on their feet and blessed with capable backhands and a healthy appetite for the net game.

OK, so Henin isn't as strong as Navratilova, and not as prone to make use of the valuable sliced, one-handed backhand as were, say, Goolagong and Novotna. And if I were Henin's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, that's what I would be trying to impress upon Henin -- the value of the slice on Wimbledon's slick, low-bouncing surface. If Henin can get away from hitting those high-bouncing, topspin backhands -- pretty as they are -- she will really improve her chances.

It's about time Henin got it done.