Closing in on career Slam, Henin-Hardenne in finals

Published 7:10 pm Friday, July 7, 2006

Hardly at the top of her game, Justine Henin-Hardenne steeled herself enough to hang on and reach the Wimbledon final, moving within one win of a career Grand Slam.

Widely considered one of the tour’s grittiest players, the third-seeded Henin-Hardenne overcame problems with her serve and trademark backhand to beat No. 2 Kim Clijsters 6-4, 7-6 (4) in an all-Belgian semifinal Thursday.

“I don’t have anything to prove to anyone anymore,” said Henin-Hardenne, trying to become the first woman in the Open era to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back without dropping a set at either. “I proved enough on the tennis court: the fighter I am, how much I can compete.”

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Her opponent Saturday will be No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo, who wasted a big lead but collected herself and pulled out a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 victory over 2004 champion Maria Sharapova.

Mauresmo entered the day 0-3 in Wimbledon semifinals, and a fourth setback appeared quite possible when she dropped five consecutive games to cede the second set.

“It was not perfect,” she said, “but it still was a win.”

The men’s semifinals are Friday, with three-time champion Roger Federer against unseeded Jonas Bjorkman, and No. 2 Rafael Nadal against No. 18 Marcos Baghdatis. Nadal, the two-time French Open champion, played his postponed quarterfinal Thursday and eliminated No. 22 Jarko Nieminen 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 after getting a prematch pep talk in the locker room from the only Spaniard to win Wimbledon, 1966 champion Manolo Santana.

Nadal saved both break points he faced against Nieminen and hasn’t lost serve in his past 12 sets.

“I finish fast,” Nadal said, “so that’s important for tomorrow, no?”

The women’s final will be a rematch of January’s Australian Open final, where Mauresmo collected her first Grand Slam trophy but was denied a chance to feel what it’s like to win championship point at a major: Henin-Hardenne quit in the second set, citing an upset stomach from pain medicine she took for a shoulder injury.

“She probably feels very happy about it — the opportunity to have revenge,” Mauresmo said.

Henin-Hardenne didn’t want to talk Thursday about what happened in Melbourne, or what her thoughts are on the possibility of becoming the 10th woman to have won each of the four Grand Slam tournaments at least once.

She did say she’ll be thinking Saturday about her grandfather, who died July 8, 2001 — the day Henin-Hardenne lost to Venus Williams at Wimbledon in the Belgian’s first major final.

“I was very young and not mature at all at that time,” said Henin-Hardenne.