Pierce, Henin-Hardenne set up unexpected women's final match

Friday, June 3, 2005

PARIS -- Medical charts and ages, rankings and records won't mean much when Mary Pierce and Justine Henin-Hardenne clash Saturday in the French Open final.

They are players who defy logic and obvious number crunching, reminding fans that champions are more than the sum of their wins and losses or backhands and forehands. Their low seedings never mattered on their marches through the draw to semifinal victories Thursday, nor did the formidable health problems each overcame to get this far.

To the delight of fans on a gorgeous afternoon, Pierce and Henin-Hardenne all but danced on center court in their latest triumphs over outclassed Russians. Pierce, representing France, breezed past Elena Likhovtseva 6-1, 6-1 after Belgian Henin-Hardenne ousted Nadia Petrova 6-2, 6-3.

On paper, it would be easy to discount Pierce's chances to reclaim the French title she won in 2000 and came close to winning when she reached her only other final at Roland Garros 11 years ago. The years between have seen Pierce rise and fall and rise again as she's dealt with family dramas, coaching changes and injuries -- none more serious than the back problems that led her to miss most of 2001 and consider retiring.

She's won only one tour event, a minor one on grass in the Netherlands, since capturing the French and came into this Grand Slam event seeded No. 21. At 30, she is the oldest French women's finalist since Martina Navratilova in 1987 and is bidding to become the oldest champion since Chris Evert, at 31, the year before that.

Throw in the fact that Pierce has lost all three of her matches against Henin-Hardenne in straight sets -- on clay in Charleston, S.C., and on grass at Wimbledon two years ago, and on a hardcourt at the Olympics last summer -- and it wouldn't seem she has much chance to win this time.

The 10th-seeded Henin-Hardenne, the 2003 champion, turned 23 on Wednesday. She has won 23 straight matches, all on clay, and she's trying to win her 23rd title.

"It's my lucky number," she said. "I hope it will keep going."

Henin-Hardenne has overcome a blood virus and knee injury that kept her off the tour for seven months, and she's been troubled by a back injury throughout this tournament.

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