Making hay on clay

Justine Henin and Rafael Nadal reasserted their supremacy at the French Open by completing a hat-trick of titles. The Belgian champion tells Pritha Sarkar how this year’s victory was special for her, while Paul Newman writes that Nadal has established himself as an all-time great of claycourt tennis

Winning the French Open for the fourth time meant more to Justine Henin than simply lifting the Suzanne Lenglen trophy again — it proved to her that she could go it alone.

The Belgian had won her previous five Grand Slam titles while married to Pierre-Yves Hardenne. But following the breakdown of the relationship at the turn of the year, the 25-year-old needed confirmation that her success would not dry up.

“I do it for myself now and I’m alone and I have to deal with a lot of things on my own,” she said after her 6-1, 6-2 win over Serbian Ana Ivanovic in the final.

“It’s not easy but I’m glad and I’m proud of myself because I now know I can do things by myself. It was very important that I could prove that to myself.”

While Hardenne was conspicuous by his absence, Henin did have new additions to her cheering supporters on Philippe Chatrier Court — her three siblings.

Henin had been estranged from her family for many years but after they patched up their differences three months ago, her brothers David and Thomas and sister Sarah made the trip to Paris to get a close view of Justine in action.

It was the first time the trio witnessed their sister win a Grand Slam title from the stands.

Even though she dedicated the win to her family, including her father Jose who stayed at home, Henin said she was not sorry for shutting them out of her life for so long.

“I don’t have any regrets because that was the way I was feeling at the time,” said the world number one, who lost her mother when she was 12.

“Things have now improved and things have changed and I’m glad and I’m proud of it. I’m sure my mum is proud of us.

“I feel good that I could give them the victory and it was important that we could celebrate together for the first time in so many years. So that was pretty big.”

With the claycourt season now over, Henin is looking towards the grasscourt season to complete her Grand Slam collection.

Twice runner-up at the All England Club, including 2006 when she reached all four major finals, she is aware that adapting to grass continues to be her biggest challenge.

“That’s the only one I’ve never won, so it’s my main goal now,” said Henin, whose next stop on the WTA Sony Ericsson Tour will be in Eastbourne at the traditional Wimbledon warm-up tournament.

“It’s going to be tough because it comes so quickly to adjust after the French Open. You have only two weeks to get used to the grass and that’s not easy.

“I’ll have to play a very aggressive game if I want to win it.” — P.S.

RAFAEL NADAL dashed Roger Federer’s hopes of joining the elite group of players who have won all four Grand Slam tournaments. Federer may rule the world, but his greatest rival remains king of clay.

Nadal won 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in three hours and 10 minutes to claim his third successive French Open title. The 21-year-old Spaniard has won all 21 matches he’s played at Roland Garros and his three wins over Federer have been remarkably similar. In the final 12 months ago, Federer took the first of four sets and won 17 games; the French Open final this time was a repeat of their 2005 semifinal, when he took the second of four sets and won 16 games.

Federer had been chasing his 11th Grand Slam victory, and one which would have put him alongside Don Budge, Fred Perry, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi as the only men to win all four Grand Slam titles. The French Open, however, remains tantalisingly beyond his grasp.

It is Federer’s great misfortune to be competing in an era in which Nadal is threatening to become the most successful claycourt player of all time. The Swiss has played in 12 Grand Slam finals and his only two defeats have been at the hands of Nadal.

The Spaniard celebrated his 21st birthday only eight days before the final, but he already has only two players ahead of him in the list of French Open title winners: Bjorn Borg, who won six times between 1974 and 1981, and Henri Cochet, who won four titles between 1926 and 1932.

Federer became the first player to take a set off Nadal here this year, but that will be of little consolation. His victory over the Spaniard in Hamburg last month, which ended the world No. 2’s record 81-match winning run on clay, proved to be a false dawn. Nadal has now won eight of their 12 matches and six of their seven meetings on clay.

Nadal said he was “extremely happy and, at the same time, a bit sad for Roger, who’s a friend and a true champion.”

Nadal is a force of nature, a great athlete who retrieves shots like no other player in the modern game and forces his opponent to go the extra mile. As the final wore on, Federer’s mistakes multiplied as he forced the pace. By the end he had made 59 unforced errors to Nadal’s 27.

The world No. 1 had his chances, but of 17 break points he could take only one, while Nadal converted four of his 10. Federer’s first serve let him down at some important stages of the match, while Nadal played the big points superbly. — P.N.



Asia’s heroes
Vikramdeep Johal

Fresh from guiding Sri Lanka to the final of the World Cup, Mahela Jayawardene displayed his astute leadership again to lead Asia XI to a whitewash over Africa XI in the Afro-Asia Cup. His own contribution was 217 runs in three matches, including a hundred in the third one-dayer at Chennai.

Jayawardene marshalled the star-studded Asian team adroitly. The African side was no great shakes, but still it put up a stiff resistance in all three matches. In the opener at Bangalore, Shaun Pollock threatened to take the match away from the Asians with his maiden ODI hundred. However, the Sri Lankan captain held his nerve and never let things go out of control.

In the final game at Chennai, the Asians were in a spot of bother at 72-5. Jayawardene, along with Mahendra Singh Dhoni, not only steadied the innings but also launched a furious counter-attack. They put on a record 218-run partnership that took the team total beyond the 300-run mark for the third time in succession.

Jayawardene’s contribution was 107 off 106 balls, while man-of-the-match Dhoni cracked an unbeaten 139 off just 97 deliveries. The former was declared the man of the series not only for his batting but also for his captaincy.

The Sri Lankan captain is the ideal man to have in a crisis situation. In the World Cup semifinal against New Zealand at Kingston, his 115 not out helped the team post a challenging total which proved to be too much for the Kiwis.

The loss to Pakistan in the Warid ODI Series in Abu Dhabi recently can only be called an aberration, since Jayawardene was in charge of a depleted side (without Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas and Kumar Sangakkara).

Meanwhile, Dhoni has undoubtedly regained his blazing form after a nightmarish World Cup (29 runs in three matches, including two ducks). In the one-day series against Bangladesh, he braved cramps in the first match at Dhaka to come up with a match-winning 91 not out. It was an uncharacteristic innings, marked by patience and perseverance under difficult conditions.

He has been deservingly rewarded for his heroics by being named the vice-captain of the one-day team for the Ireland tour. Incidentally, all of his three one-day hundreds have been scored on Indian soil. Dhoni would certainly like to set his overseas record straight sooner than later. 



Twenty20 prospect
Akash Ghai

HE was the leading run-getter in the inaugural National Twenty20 Championship held in April this year. Going by this superb performance, Karan Goel deserves to be in the Indian team for the September 11-24 World Cup in South Africa.

This 21-year-old cricketer from Ludhiana scored 313 runs in 10 matches at a brilliant strike rate of 107.93, guiding Punjab to the final of the event, where they were beaten by Tamil Nadu.

Karan has also represented Punjab in Ranji Trophy matches this season and was part of the North Zone team in the Deodhar Trophy.

He made his first-class debut last season but got to play only one match. His outstanding efforts in inter-district tournaments have made him a regular member of the state team during this season.

Though Karan was Punjab’s star batsman in the Twenty20 event, he missed out on scoring a hundred (Mumbai’s Rohit Sharma was the only one to reach the three-figure mark). He smashed 82 off 60 balls against Himachal Pradesh, and also claimed six wickets for 23 runs with his useful off-breaks.

In Ranji matches, too, a century has eluded him so far. He fell five runs short of his maiden century (95) against Gujarat in the super league match in December last year.

In the match against Maharashtra, he was dismissed for 91. In a crucial match against Services, he stitched a 134-run partnership with Dinesh Mongia in 27.1 overs, which enabled the team to romp home victors. In the semifinal, Karan played a defiant knock of 72 runs against Rajasthan. In seven first-class matches, he has accumulated 335 runs.

His favourite shots are the cover drive and long hits over mid-on and mid-off. He is working on leg-side strokes to become a versatile batsman.

Karan started playing cricket at the age of nine. “My father, who had played the game at the university level, was my first guide. Later, coach Charanjit Singh honed my skills,” he says.

He played in under-14, under-16 and under-19 categories, and also represented the country in the School Games Federation event against teams from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Singapore in Ludhiana in 2001-02. He was declared the man of the series. In the 2003-04 season, he was part of the team that finished third in the Commonwealth event held at Lucknow.

“My aim is to break into the national team at the earliest. For the purpose, I am working very hard on my game. Punjab coach Daljit Singh has been helping me a lot to rectify my flaws and make me mentally tougher,” says Karan with determination in his voice.



Water baby

A 15-month-old toddler swam a distance of four metres earlier this week, an act that is likely to earn him an entry into the Guinness Book of Records as the youngest swimmer.

Maharanth Kamalakar, the son of a businessman, performed the feat at the Cosmopolitan Club in Chennai. Among the spectators were three officials who would endorse the entry to be sent to Guinness.

The baby, born on March 13, 2006, was trained to swim by his maternal uncle Arun Balaji from the age of one.

An international swimmer, Balaji said the child was trained for one hour daily for two months. “The baby was put under rigorous training from the third month,” he said.

Due to age restrictions, Maharanth was not able to gain an entry into the Limca Book of Records, but an application would be sent for consideration to the Guinness people, Balaji said. — PTI 


Young gun

Mumbai youngster Rohit Sharma, who was the lone centurion in the inaugural National Twenty20 Championship in April this year, owes it to his consistency for being selected in the Indian one-day squad for the upcoming off-shore series in Ireland and Scotland.

“It’s a dream come true,” said the 20-year-old.

The elegant and technically sound batsman said he had an inkling he would be picked for the tour when he attended the batsmen’s fitness-specific camp in Bangalore.

In 24 List A matches so far, Rohit has scored 740 runs at an average of 40.11 and a strike rate of 89.04.

Rohit said the experience of India A tours had facilitated his entry into the national squad as his performance there helped him grab the selectors’ attention.

“The India A tours helped me a lot as I started catching the eye of the selectors. People saw me on television on the tour to Abu Dhabi last year,” said Rohit.

The right-handed batsman, who can also bowl off-breaks, said the fitness camp and training that he underwent would stand him in good stead.

If Rohit makes the most of the opportunities that come his way in Ireland and Scotland, he is likely to be part of the team for the seven-match ODI series against England beginning in late August. Consequently, he should get a chance to play in the first-ever Twenty20 World Cup to be hosted by South Africa in September. — Agencies