If there were any doubts about Justine Henin-Hardenne's return to form and fitness, the Belgian put them to rest at Roland Garros on Saturday, breezing past sentimental favorite Mary Pierce, 6-1, 6-1, to claim her second French Open title and, in doing so, reclaim her place atop women's tennis.
Henin-Hardenne's victory was as effortless as it was efficient, concluding in 62 minutes. And its brevity brought Pierce to tears during the trophy presentation afterward, in which she apologized for not giving Henin-Hardenne a more spirited challenge and for failing to give spectators a more entertaining match.
At 30, Pierce had defied the odds to string together six impressive victories, including a toppling of world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, to advance to the final of the tournament she holds most dear for the third time in her career. But the Frenchwoman who showed up for Saturday's final bore no relation to the age-defying powerhouse of previous days.
While Pierce insisted that nerves had not been a factor in her crushing defeat, she played as if seized by anxiety -- eking out just 10 points in the first set, double-faulting at critical junctures and flubbing the most elemental shots. The result was the most lopsided French Open final since Steffi Graf steamrolled Natasha Zvereva, 6-0, 6-0, in 1988.
But to Henin-Hardenne, the one-sided victory was exactly what she had come to Paris hoping to find: confirmation, on both a personal and public level, that she has finally shaken the debilitating effects of the virus that sidelined her most of the 2004 season and can once again compete with the world's best.
"I didn't know if I was going to be able to be at my best level anymore," Henin-Hardenne said afterward. "I think I proved it many times in the last few weeks that I'm back."
Henin-Hardenne, 23, becomes the lowest seed (10th) to claim the Roland Garros singles title, but that seeding was hardly reflective of her ability. Since returning to tennis in March, Henin-Hardenne has won four of the five tournaments she has entered -- at Charleston, S.C.; Warsaw; Berlin and, now, Paris. With Saturday's French Open victory, her fourth Grand Slam title, Henin-Hardenne extended her winning streak to 24 matches.
After taking two weeks off, she will turn her focus to Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam to elude her. And though her world ranking is inching up slowly (she will move from 12th into the top 10 this week), Henin-Hardenne will step onto the grass courts of Wimbledon, no doubt, as one of the favorites based on her dominant showing here.
Said Pierce: "She has all the shots: serve, return, forehand, backhand, slice, drop shots, she comes to the net. She just does everything well, and she's very confident with all of her shots."
Pierce, the 2000 French Open champion, was greeted with enthusiastic shouts of, "Allez, Mah-REE!" when she strode onto Center Court on Saturday. She held serve in the opening game but came unglued after that, allowing Henin-Hardenne to reel off 14 consecutive points in the 26-minute first set, which Pierce closed with a double-fault.
Pierce managed a break point in the opening game of the second set, but spoiled it by spraying a forehand wide. She squandered another chance by mis-hitting an easy volley.
"I was thinking too much," Pierce said.
An even worse gaffe followed, as Pierce slammed a simple overhead into the bottom of the net to hand Henin-Hardenne yet another break point. The error was so egregious that it elicited whistles from the partisan crowd. Pierce, falling behind 2-0, could only reply with a self-deprecating smirk.
After managing to hold serve for 3-1, Pierce tried varying her tactics, countering Henin-Hardenne's pace with looping strokes that disrupted the Belgian's rhythm. It was good for a point or two, but Henin-Hardenne quickly regained her focus to fire off one elegant backhand after another until Pierce erred again.
And that's how the match ended, with Pierce driving a two-fisted backhand into the net. Gracious in defeat, she trotted to midcourt and then around the net to embrace Henin-Hardenne and exchange a congratulatory kiss on the cheek.
Just five years earlier, all of Paris was at Pierce's feet when she became the first Frenchwoman since Francoise Durr in 1967 to win the French singles title. This day belonged to Henin-Hardenne, who had fought her way back from so much to bask in the glory of Roland Garros once again. And as she hoisted the trophy over her head, it was impossible to believe that Henin-Hardenne had ever spent a day languishing in a sickbed. She positively glowed with health and the profound satisfaction of a well-played match.
"I think I enjoy probably more my game than before my illness," Henin-Hardenne said afterward. "I enjoy every moment I'm on the court. Every ball I hit, it's with my heart."