A Substitute For Class

The reason that Justine Henin is able to dominate the rankings in women’s tennis is that she’s just the best player in the world. Simple as that. She has more strengths and less weaknesses than any other player, allowing her to play with greater variety, and thus she is better equipped to deal with more match situations and on different surfaces. That’s why she is the most consistent player in the game, and a comfortable world no.1.

Henin went into yesterday’s Australian Open quarter-final against Maria Sharapova on a winning streak stretching back 32 matches to last years Wimbledon semi-final. Sharapova came into the match as world no.5, the lowest position she’s held for some time, mainly as a result of a 2007 season dogged by injury and inconsistency. Despite the fact that Sharapova has two grand slam titles, and was until recently ranked in the no.2 position, she was a comfortable second favourite for this match. And the main reason why? Everyone knows that Justine Henin is simply the better tennis player.

There are times however, when an opponent’s greater talent can be overcome by the sheer force of determination, self-belief, and will to win. Maria Sharapova has made a career out of this knowledge. Tennis purists may knock her for having a one-dimensional game, but Sharapova isn’t listening. She’s locked inside her zone, building her game around a fierce mental toughness forged during an upbringing scattered with triumphs over adversity.

Yesterday’s encounter in Melbourne was a classic example of a finely-honed talent being given a ruthless battering by a warrior-like competitor showing no respect for reputation. Sharapova gave one of the most awesome displays of single-mindedness I’ve ever witnessed in a sporting arena. Most players would have prepared some kind of plan to try and overcome Henin’s game; Sharapova’s triumph was grounded in a policy of forgetting that the world no.1 was even out there, and focussing with complete intensity on playing at the highest level she could possibly achieve.

The most impressive thing about Sharapova’s outstanding display was the fact that she sustained such a level right through to the final point. Many players would have had an attack of the wobbles when approaching the finish line against a player like Henin, but Sharapova did the exact opposite; her game only improved the nearer she got to achieving her goal.

So much did Sharapova sustain her performance that she ended up wiping Henin off the court completely in the second set. The world no.1 just does not get ‘bagelled’ (that’s losing a set 6-0, to you non-speakers of tennis lingo) in the latter stages of a grand slam. To see the greatest player in women’s tennis crumble in this way was shocking, even against an opponent as tough as the Russian star.

Sharapova definitely seems to have come to this grand slam to prove a point to the many who were doubting her future at the very top of the game after last year. She must now stand as the favourite to take the title, despite the fact that two of the other three semi-finalists are ranked higher than her. If she takes the same kind of tunnel vision into the last two matches, it’s very hard to see an opponent coming up with answers. Justine Henin after all, had none.

The semi-final line up in the women’s event has given us the chance to see tennis’ finest young talents prove their worth, having brushed aside the more experienced likes of Henin and the Williams sisters. It has also provided the photographers with a day sent from heaven, with probably the four most snapped players in the world having made it through. Along with the A-list superstar Sharapova, we have the two enormously popular young Serbs, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, and the Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova. All four will grace as many fashion rag covers as they will tennis publications in 2008.

It is also an all Eastern-European line up – a most significant breakthrough for what is undoubtedly the world’s major breeding ground for tennis talent at the moment. And whilst we have yet to see a player come through from Eastern Europe with the kind of talent possessed by Justine Henin, the one thing none of these players seem to lack is the self-belief to overcome the most daunting odds. It can sometimes be all you need.

Jamie.

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Filed under Ana Ivanovic, Australian Open, Daniela Hantuchova, Jelena Jankovic, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, Opinion, Serena Williams, Sport, Tennis, Venus Williams, Williams Sisters

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