by Neil-Monticelli Harley-Rudd
Justine Henin avenged last year’s Wimbledon final defeat by Amelie Mauresmo by taking the Eastbourne crown for a second successive year.
In a topsy-turvy encounter, Mauresmo initially held the upper hand at 4-1 but lost the set 7-5. The Belgian added to her first set success by racing away 4-2 in the next set, only for Mauresmo to comprehensively win a tie-break and take it all the way to the final set to determine who will be the 2007 champion.
Going into the final neither player had dropped a set, so the battle for supremacy was always going to be one that would go one way and then the other.
The French ace sped into a 4-2 then 5-3 lead but foolishly tried a serve-and-volley game to seal the contest, which allowed Henin to force a tie-break that she won with ease without breaking a sweat.
Mauresmo lost the first point in sunny but windy Centre Court conditions, but duly reeled off the next three points to show her illustrious opponent exactly what to expect later. The current Wimbledon champion then double-faulted before holding her service game with a delightful passing shot, much to the delight of the highly vocal crowd.
The world no1 just about managed to hold her opening serve, clearly troubled by the blustery conditions. Mauresmo, who relies on her serve to win matches, had no problems in taking a 2-1 lead and then produced some brilliant deep passing shots to outmanoeuvre the 25-year-old and move further ahead at 3-1.
Mauresmo, who only returned back to the circuit for this pre-Wimbledon tournament, seemed far too eager to further increase her grip on the Eastbourne title by upping the pace during her service game. As a result she fell behind 15-40 before calming her nerves to dictate play and take a massive three game lead.
Henin, still showing difficulties with her serve, was fortunate to hold onto her serve when her opponent made a string of unforced errors that puzzled the enthusiastic crowd.
Having whizzed through the previous games without really thinking, Mauresmo looked out-of-sorts to fall 40-15 within 60 seconds. But with her magnificent serve proved far too strong for the Belgian – who swung at fresh air and was then aced – it was a shock to see Henin reduce the deficit.
Henin had unnerved the 27-year-old by breaking her, and easily levelled matters courtesy of too many unforced errors at this level. Mauresmo seemed shell-shocked to have squandered her emphatic lead and could do nothing right, losing her serve for a second successive game.
Henin had amazingly turned around a 4-1 deficit to a 5-4 lead without playing any better, so was serving for the opening set. Safety shots were tapped over the net, treating the crowd to lengthy rallies that were won by Mauresmo’s power game.
The crowd could not believe the lack of fighting spirit from the Wimbledon champion, who wilted and lost her serve yet again – this time to love.
Henin was blatantly surprised to be serving for the set, and easily sped to 40-0 for three set points. The current French Open champion was denied at the first opportunity with a very deep unforced error, but sent down her third ace to conclude the opening set 7-5.
The crowd were disappointed that their favourite had not taken advantage of her 4-1 lead, but were appreciative towards Mauresmo when she managed to hold her serve to open the second set despite a pathetic double fault.
Mauresmo smiled back at the vocal crowd, which lifted her and she visibly showed some resurgence with a spring in her step. But these smiles were soon wiped off her face when she succumbed to a 3-1 deficit, having failed miserably on every approach to net.
Mauresmo restored some much-needed dignity when, partly down to the use of new balls she served to love. By now the match had become a back-of-the-court hard-hitting exercise, with only occasional approaches to the net resulting in formidable passing shot.
Games predictably went with serve throughout the rest of the set, Mauresmo just about hanging on with some brave shots against an opponent who was able to control the pace of the game and dictate play.
The atmosphere and tension on the Centre Court could have been cut by a knife. Surely Mauresmo surprised the crowd, her opponent and even herself by racing into a 6-1 lead in the tie-break. Henin managed to save two set points with penetrative safety shots, before mis-hitting a straightforward shot out of the end of the the court to return back to level terms.
The sunny weather had clouded over but the heat had been turned up on court, with both players aware that to carve out victory they would need to change their game tactics.
Henin held her serve. Mauresmo levelled without losing a point and went from looking like an obvious loser in the first two sets to the obvious winner in the third set, courtesy of a 4-2 lead.
Games went with serve, allowing Mauresmo the chance to serve for the title at 5-4. For some unknown reason, the 27-year-old pressed the self-destruct button by opting for an uncharacteristic serve-and-volley game. Henin had no problems in dispatching easy passing shots past Mauresmo each time the French ace approached the net.
The crowd were astonished to see Mauresmo’s game plan fall apart, as she went from serving at 5-3 to 5-6. Mauresmo, trailing 30-0 looked to be on the verge of defeat but her strong serve, so often her main weapon at Devonshire Park during the week, saved her and took the closely-fought match into a decisive tiebreak.
Mauresmo had dominated the previous tiebreak, but the ball was on the other foot this time as Henin carved out an unassailable 4-0 lead. The Wimbledon champion, admittedly short of match practice, simply caved at this stage and choked against the world no1 7-2.
The crowd gave the players a standing ovation after a 165-minute match of the highest quality, with Henin extending her unbeaten run at Eastbourne to two seasons and eight matches.
2007 final result
Justine Henin (Bel) defeated Amelie Mauresmo (Fra) 7-5 6-7(4) 7-6(2) in 165 minutes
2007 final quotes: Justine Henin
“I was pleased today to win. It was important for me to come here to Eastbourne, I passed an important test against Amelie.
The positive thing about this week was that I was able to get onto the grass and find my rhythm.”
2007 final quotes: Amelie Mauresmo
“I was disappointed with my serve and a few other aspects of my game, like volleys. That was the worst weather conditions all week but it was the same for both of us.
“Obviously it hurts, for sure, but that is what we do week-in week-out – we play tournaments and we have to try and win them. I’m very disappointed overall, but her game was always going to be good on grass.
“It was all very positive, but Wimbledon is different. I hope that I get another chance at the final.”
How they reached the final
JUSTINE HENIN (seeded 1, world ranked 1)
Round 1 Bye
Round 2 Agnieszka Radwanska (POL) 6-4 6-1 (70 minutes)
Quarter-final Nicole Vaidisova (CZE) 6-2 6-2 (57 minutes)
Semi-final Marion Bartoli (FRA) 6-1 6-3 (59 minutes)
Games won/lost 36-13
Sets won/lost 6-0
Total time 186 minutes (average 62 minutes per match)
AMELIE MAURESMO (seeded 2, world ranked 4)
Round 1 Bye
Round 2 Mara Santangelo (ITA) 6-2 6-3 (61 minutes)
Quarter-final Shahar Peer (ISR) 6-3 6-4 (78 minutes)
Semi-final Nadia Petrova (RUS) 6-4 retired (42 minutes)
Games won/lost 30-16
Sets won/lost 5-0
Total time 181 minutes (average 60.33 minutes per match)
“It was important for me to come here to Eastbourne, I passed an important test against Amelie.”
– Justine Henin