Surrounded by family, Henin earns her sixth Grand Slam victory

Published 6:15 am Sunday, June 10, 2007

PARIS — An hour after clutching her fourth French Open trophy, Justine Henin cradled other precious cargo in her arms: her 6-week-old niece.
Talking and laughing with friends and relatives in a lounge just off center court, Henin slowly rocked her brother’s baby, then gently kissed her head. As much as a sixth Grand Slam title meant to the top-ranked Belgian, this scene was worth far more.
For Henin, life off the court has long presented far more problems than life on it. So after overwhelming No. 7 Ana Ivanovic of Serbia 6-1, 6-2 Saturday for a third consecutive French Open championship, Henin was thrilled to be able to sip champagne alongside family members with whom she only recently re-established contact.
This was Henin’s fifth consecutive final at a major she entered; she skipped the Australian Open in January while working through personal issues, including separating from her husband.
Back in the Grand Slam spotlight, back at her favorite tournament, Henin was as good as ever at Roland Garros, where she’s won 35 consecutive sets.
Henin is the first person since Monica Seles in 1990-92 to win three French Opens in a row. In Sunday’s men’s final, Roger Federer will be trying to win his fourth consecutive Grand Slam title — something no man has done in nearly 40 years — while Rafael Nadal bids for a third straight French Open title.
Despite all of her experience, Henin began slowly Saturday, double-faulting to get broken in the first game, then falling behind 40-love in the second.
The 19-year-old Ivanovic was the one in her first Grand Slam final, but it was Henin who appeared nervous at the outset, perhaps burdened by wanting to win so badly with her younger sister and two older brothers in the stands. They traveled from Belgium to root for her at the 1999 French Open, before their falling-out — then didn’t attend another match of hers until last week.
After one flubbed forehand in the first game, Henin glared at the ball, as though it were to blame for the miscue. In the second game, though, it was Ivanovic who began to get tense.
The first sign of trouble came on her awkward serve tosses; she had to catch the ball and start again. Henin broke back to 1-1 with a backhand that clipped the net and danced over. The next time Ivanovic served, she double-faulted twice, including at break point, then hung her head.
That was part of a stretch in which Henin won 19 of 23 points and eight consecutive games.
By then, fans were regularly chanting, ‘‘Ana! Ana!’’ in hopes of getting her going. But Ivanovic kept making mistakes — she finished with 26 unforced errors, twice as many as Henin, plus five double-faults — and her face was flushed.
Maybe. But Henin was superb and never let up. Even when Ivanovic made yet another miscue to make it 6-1, 4-1, Henin let out an ‘‘Allez!’’ (‘‘Let’s go!’’) as the ball sailed out, as if things were tight and the point were vital.
To reinforce that, Henin’s coach, Carlos Rodriguez, gave her three envelopes containing notes — one to be opened if leading by three games, another if she served for the match, and a third if she won.
TV cameras caught the second note, which Henin dutifully opened during the changeover before she served out the last game. Among the messages, handwritten in all capital letters: ‘‘Allez.’’
Four points later, the match was over. Henin ended it with a forehand volley, then flung her racket behind her and leaned on the net, closing her eyes and exhaling.
Soon, she was making eye contact with her siblings and Rodriguez. During the on-court trophy ceremony, Henin spoke about her father, who watched on TV, and made reference to her late mother, who brought a 10-year-old Justine to Roland Garros to watch a tennis match in person for the first time.
She wouldn’t discuss what precipitated the estrangement, nor what prompted the reconciliation. Her brother David said things changed when he was in a car accident this year and awoke from a coma to find Henin in his room.
Famous for swinging a mean racket and for mastering the rigors of clay.
Now, Henin finds joy away from tennis, too.