Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Williams Could Use an Etiquette Lesson

By SELENA ROBERTS
Sports of The Times
September 5, 2007

In her white ball cap, with a tad of strawberry blonde in her ponytail, Justine Henin has always channeled a little Peppermint Patty — a bit rough around the edges, never completely hip to social graces.

Serena Williams must have thought Henin rude last night. Under the lights Williams craves, in front of an adoring audience inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, Henin snipped the strings on the Tour’s most famous parachutist.

To the end of her quarterfinal victory, Henin displayed snappy footwork fit for “Riverdance,” gaining aggression as the match wore on. At the end of an exhausting first-set tie breaker, Williams’s feet began hitting the hard court heavy and flat while she sprayed forehands on critical points.

“I think she made a lot of lucky shots,” Williams said of Henin’s play.

All 30 winners were bits of fortune? Who is classless now?

The grumpy, borderline caustic disposition of Williams after her 7-6 (3), 6-1 loss was a little jarring considering she had her own lack of preparation to blame for giving in so easily to Henin.

Did her lack of match play affect her? What about her suspicious fitness?

“I’m very fit,” she said. “I can run for hours.”

She didn’t make it two hours against Henin. What Henin proved is that Williams cannot just drop in on the Tour, anymore, with tennis cameos in between sitcom cameos, in between commercial cameos. Williams cannot just materialize with a pedestrian’s lung capacity and swoop in for a major as she did at the Australian Open.

Maybe that wasn’t a trend, but an aberration.

Henin wasn’t in Melbourne this year during her divorce. If she had been on the scene, Henin might have ended Williams’s assault just as she cut short Williams’s runs at the French Open and Wimbledon this year.

Instead, Williams’s Aussie revival emboldened her, validating her piecemeal approach to tennis. Now, Henin has to have given Serena pause about that strategy. Now, the Open hopes for the Williams family have been cut in half, with a potential Venus-Serena semifinal foiled by Henin.

Henin saved everyone from that sister-sister awkwardness — even the Williams family.

“I think it’s better to lose to someone else than your sister,” Oracene Price, Serena’s mother, said last night.

If Venus gets past her quarterfinal today, Henin would have to beat another Williams to gain a final date in prime time. If Venus plays with the ferocity of her first week, she’ll be there to greet Henin, who pushed Serena all over the court by sneaking in for sharp volleys and coming up with a surprise ace or two.

“I’ve been aggressive, like the No. 1 player in the world, you know, trying to dictate points,” Henin, the top Open seed, said. “I’m very happy to beat Serena here in this stadium, in a great atmosphere.”

The crowd saw a different Henin. She has used the past few months to reintroduce herself to the public after her personal makeover: inside, not out.

Not long ago, Henin was abrasive, almost cold. In awkward moments in her career, Henin ignored etiquette. She was often been too consumed by intensity, too naked in her ambition to play Miss Manners.

She was guilty of a tennis taboo when she pulled out of the 2006 Australian Open final — after dropping the first set — with stomach pains. And at the 2003 French Open semifinal, Henin put up a hand to call for time on the serve of her opponent, who happened to be Serena. The umpire never saw Henin’s signal. And Henin never confessed.

Henin’s act of mischief — or, as Serena called it at the time, “lying and fabricating” — was not an oddity. Henin has been known to look to her box to pick up what look to some to be covert signs from her coach.

She still does that. But her edges have been rounded. To all those dying to love Henin, to the purist who treasures her poetic one-handed backhand, and to anyone who digs wispy underdogs in a sport overtaken by power, Henin has become more embraceable.

Maybe it’s a product of her recent divorce or reconciliation with her family, but Henin is working toward rehabbing her image.

The stadium crowd pulled for Williams, but they couldn’t help but be awed by Henin’s guile on points, by her perseverance during rallies. She wasn’t the glamorous one or famous one or the babbling one who says whatever runs through her mind.

Henin is not the loquacious and absent-minded Serena, who, from one question to the next, just lets her thoughts fly like daffodil seeds.

“I can’t keep up with what I say on a daily basis,” Serena said this week when asked about a particular response she couldn’t remember. “I might have been just jabbering at my lips. Might have just been filling space.”

She filled in no blanks last night. Serena barely said a word, bitter and belligerent and discourteous. Who could use charm school now?

selenasports@nytimes.com

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