Epic Year, Epic Ending
MADRID, Spain - In an epic ending to an epic year, two of the greatest fighters in history went to war on Sunday, both battling for season-ending glory at the Sony Ericsson Championships. And after a three-hour, 24-minute marathon it was Justine Henin who was victorious, capping a record-breaking season with a 57 75 63 triumph and her 10th Sony Ericsson WTA Tour title of the year.
Henin's championship victory over Maria Sharapova - which, incidentally, placed at No.12 on the all-time list of longest matches - was a nail-biter from start to finish. Henin barely let go of the opening set, saving seven set points before finally losing her 5-6 service game. The second set had a tense ending also, as she broke for 5-4 and then dropped serve, but would break again and tuck the set away with a love hold.
"The end of the second set was really important; I broke her, she broke me and I broke her again, so there was a lot of tension there," Henin said. "I think I took advantage of my opportunities more than she did, especially on the return."
The third set may not have been as long as the others in terms of games, but it too broke the hour mark. Just as Henin seemed to pull away - breaking and then holding to go up 3-1 - Sharapova rallied to bring it back to 3-all. But that's when the wheels began coming off, as Sharapova dropped her serve at 15 and the top-ranked, top-seeded Henin held at love to go up 5-3.
With Sharapova serving to stay in it Henin wasn't the least bit discouraged as four match points passed her by. She maintained the poise she is so famous for and refused to wait for her service game to close, sealing it on her fifth match point.
"This was one of the best moments of my career; to finish an amazing year with an amazing match, the longest I've ever played, makes me very happy," Henin said. "I felt pretty fresh physically but it was mentally and emotionally tough. And she played an amazing match - it's great to see her at her best level again."
For Sharapova, a run to the final here was a statement that she is still very much one of the grittiest and most dangerous competitors around. After a tough season that began with her reaching the Australian Open final and re-ascending to No.1 but saw her suffer a string of early round defeats and slip to No.6 in the world coming into Madrid, this week has been nothing but a reaffirmation.
"After a match of nearly three and a half hours, it is always disappointing to be the loser; but at the end of the week there can only be one winner and that was Justine," said Sharapova, who went 3-0 in her round robin group and routed Anna Chakvetadze in the semifinals before coming up against Henin. "She really came through and played good tennis in the end. But I'm in a much better place than I was two weeks ago. Right now I'm not asking myself any more questions."
For Henin, this season could barely have been better. She won 63 of 67 matches (a .940 winning percentage, the likes of which haven't been seen since Graf had a .977 season in 1989) and 10 of the 14 events she played, including her sixth and seventh major titles at Roland Garros and the US Open (not since Hingis in 1997 has a player won double digit titles in a season). And with the exception of seven weeks early on, she held the No.1 ranking the entire season.
Perhaps most impressively is that Henin blows away the previous record for the highest prize money earnings in a single year - the $1-million winner's cheque pushes her well past Clijsters' $4,466,345 total from 2003, to $5,367,086. She is the first woman to earn over $5 million in a single season.
And so Henin finishes No.1 for a second straight year, showing once again that through setback and disadvantage can come drive and determination.
"Impossible is nothing and I've proven it again this year. When I remember the way I felt in January and when I came back to competition in February in Paris, it was like I had to start again. I had to deal with a lot of emotions. It's been a very difficult year but I remained very positive and I grew up a lot. A lot of things happened in my life that fueled my tennis more than ever. I have no hesitations to say that it's been the best season in my career so far, even if it has been one of the most difficult."