Serena to benefit most from Henin's exit
Sun, May 25, 2008
The Straits Times
Paris - The shock of world No 1 Justine Henin's sudden retirement is still so fresh that analysts cannot agree on who benefits most when the French Open starts today.

Will it benefit veterans like Serena Williams or younger players who disintegrated to dust under a Henin stare as hard as red bricks?

All agree there are huge footprints in the clay left by the first reigning No 1 to retire in women's tennis, the same woman who claimed four of the past five championships at Roland Garros.

'It just changes the whole complexion of the French Open,' said Mary Joe Fernandez, an ESPN analyst.

'It opens the door to everybody in the top 10, but Serena has had a good season. I think she's now going to be the one to beat.'

Colleague Patrick McEnroe takes another view.

He understands why people would think Henin's retirement helps veterans such as new No 1 Maria Sharapova and Williams, the only woman left in the field who has won the French Open.

But he feels the biggest beneficiaries are young Serbs Ana Ivanovic (No 2) and Jelena Jankovic (No 3), as well as 2006 runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia.


Henin beat just about everybody on clay, but she held a bigger psychological edge over less experienced opponents, McEnroe argues.

'Serena and Maria, they know they can beat her,' he said.

'The Serbs are completely intimidated by her. Kuznetsova, when she just sees Henin, she melts. Otherwise, she's been in the finals.'

There is also a case to be made for Russia's Dinara Safina, who beat three top-10 players on the way to the German Open title this month.

One of those victims was Henin, who was struggling with a knee strain and fatigue and, unknown to most of the world, already thinking about the bold step of retirement.

Williams, 26, is the most recent American woman to win the French Open, with her 2002 victory forming part of the 'Serena Slam' sweep of Majors over parts of two calendar years.

Henin beat her in the quarter-finals in Paris last year, the first of three straight Grand Slam last-eight wins for the Belgian over her rival from Palm Beach Gardens.

But Serena, now ranked No 5, has come back strongly this year.

She demolished Henin en route to the championship in Key Biscayne, and won 17 straight matches at one point this season.

Williams had to pull out in Rome when her back stiffened. But she will be ready for Paris.

'I don't expect this to cause any problems with my preparation for the French,' she said.

Sharapova has much the same groove going - hot streaks and injury breaks. The Russian-born 21-year-old, who lives in the US, won her first 18 matches of the year and claimed the Australian Open crown.

But she has battled problems with her serving shoulder, fatigue and most recently a strained calf.

To Fernandez, the odds improve for a lot of people but nobody gains more than Williams.

'Serena can dictate play against pretty much anyone, but just not against Justine on clay,' Fernandez said. 'Justine gave her so much trouble last year. She's not going to have to deal with her now.'

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