Justine guts out victory

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:16 AM ET

Another week like this one, another final like this, and pretty soon the impossible may become likely: Pretty soon, tennis fans are going to have no choice but to fall in love with Justine Henin.

It isn't her ball-capped look, her lack of emotion, her Belgian cool, her outfits or her rather clinical game that necessarily thrills anybody. And it has never been her ranking, which is best in the world. But wrapped inside this tight athletic package is one helluva fighter disguised as a tennis player.

And that is something to cheer for.

That Henin won the Rogers Cup yesterday was no real surprise. She was supposed to win. How she came to win the match could be a novel all by itself.

How she came to play in the match is a matter worthy of discussion on a tour where giving up has become part of the culture of the athletes.

SHOCKING NEWS

On Saturday night at 10:30, less than 16 hours before she was to meet Jelena Jankovic in the final of what is ostensibly the Canadian Open, Henin's people informed Tennis Canada that an injured right shoulder would almost certainly mean she would have to withdraw from the final.

This shocking news sent tournament officials scrambling to an emergency meeting, trying to figure out what to do to replace Henin for yesterday's centre-court special, with 10,251 tickets sold.

After the meeting, officials contacted the agent for quarter-finalist Nadia Petrova, who had lost to Henin, and who happened to stick around Toronto because she was planning to visit Niagara Falls, and arranged for an exhibition match that would supplant the Rogers final.

Imagine how that would have gone over.

It wasn't until 11 yesterday morning, after a long night of treatments and some medication, that Henin agreed to play on.

And play on she did.

In one of the greatest finals in tournament history, Henin displayed all of her talents, all her guile, all her guts, to find a way to defeat second seed Jankovic 7-6, 7-5 in a stirring two-hour and 17-minute match, breathing life into a tournament that badly needed some.

At the end, Jankovic, herself, could hardly breathe. She was the healthy one. At the end, the injured Henin found a way to come back from being down 4-1 in the first set, down 2-0 in the second set, down six break points in the nine-deuce epic 11th game at 5-5 in the second, to counter-punch and body-punch her way past the younger Jankovic and a hostile pro-Serbian crowd, winning the final.

"It was a little bit painful during my warmup," said Henin, talking about her inflamed shoulder. "I knew when it was going to get warm that I could handle the pain. And during the match, I would say it's been almost perfect."

That is so much of who Justine Henin is, the tennis player the world has yet to adore. She wouldn't let a little thing like an inflamed shoulder alter her focus yesterday. She wouldn't let a little thing like trailing 4-1 in the first set bother her. An injured player trailing is a ticket out of most tournaments for most women tennis players.

Just not Henin. She takes no points off. She fights for every ball. If she had played for the Leafs, she would have been Wendel Clark, without any time lost to injury.

"I love these situations," she said of the day, the match, the circumstances. "That's what I love the most in my job. That's my passion.

"I played my best tennis when it was very close. It's good the way I came back in the match every time. But it's in my personality.

"That's the way I am and I think I'll never change that."

If anything was going to defeat her yesterday, it might have been the lengthy 18-minute, nine deuce, six-break point, 11th game. It ended up providing her with energy and, in the process, beat down Jankovic.

TOUGH GAME

"That's one of the toughest games I've ever had," said Henin and, considering the circumstances, one of the toughest matches.

"She's a great champion," said Jankovic, the proud loser. "She pushes the standards of the game."

A champion who is making herself impossible to ignore.


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