LONDON: The most elegant tennis player by a long way, Justine Henin-Hardenne could easily be cast as a quaint throwback to a gentler era.
Nary a grunt nor a scream escapes her slight frame as she caresses the ball around the court, unfurling the most gorgeous backhand for sublime winners.
But beneath the serene exterior lies a drive and a purpose capable of propelling her to the pinnacle of women's tennis.
Earlier this month Henin-Hardenne paired her unparalleled on-court elan with a mental fortitude to be feared and became the first Belgian to win a grand slam crown, capturing the French Open.
It was a major breakthrough after she had floundered in her first Grand Slam final two years ago when she was beaten for the Wimbledon title by Venus Williams.
Back then she seemed overawed and was grieving for her grandfather who had died on the morning of the final.
Two years on, with a wealth of hard-earned confidence, Henin-Hardenne is now ready to go one step further.
“I still have a lot of things and objectives to look forward to such as the other Grand Slams – Wimbledon for a start,” she said after her overwhelming victory against compatriot Kim Clijsters in Paris.
“And also becoming world number one,” she added, lest anyone leave with the impression that anything less than global domination was on her agenda.
That Henin-Hardenne beat Clijsters in the French final came as a shock to many who had assumed Clijsters had the stronger nerve, the steelier will of the two.
It was Clijsters who won their seesaw semi-final at the French in 2001 and it was Clijsters who steamed up the rankings, budging Venus Williams from the number two spot to breathe heavily down Serena Williams's back.
But Henin-Hardenne is hewn from tough stuff. The loss of her mother Francoise nine years ago has left her more thoughtful and driven than many her age.
She is estranged from her father and is married at 21.
She has proved she has the maturity and the game to succeed at the very top. Now Wimbledon is in her sights.
It is difficult, given the radiant smile Clijsters always wears, to imagine the disappointment, if not pain, felt by the younger Belgian at being left behind by her compatriot.
Clijsters has the better ranking but Henin-Hardenne has the all-important silverware.
Clijsters is now ready to win the big one. She has been seeded second by the Wimbledon committee and will lurk at the bottom of the draw, plotting her assault on the crown.
She desperately needs the breakthrough soon for it is her nerve which is now under the microscope.
She blew a 5-1 third set lead over Serena Williams in the semi-finals of the Australian Open at the start of the year and was a favourite heading into the French final. Instead the 6-0, 6-4 defeat was the heaviest since 1988.
Still, Clijsters has now appeared in two Roland Garros finals. The ultimate step of a major title cannot be too far away.
This year Henin has won four titles and Clijsters three.
In addition to the French Open, Henin is the champion of Dubai, Charleston and Berlin, while Clijsters triumphed in Sydney, Indian Wells and Rome.
The odds must be fairly short on the Belgians claiming one more title at the All England Club. – Reuters