Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Two Titans Set to Meet in a Clash of the Contented

Published: September 4, 2007

The veneer of the bold one with the curves of a question mark and the slight one with the bod of an exclamation point belies the depth of similarity between Serena Williams and Justine Henin.


Yes, Serena (pictured) tenderizes fuzzy orbs while Justine dusts them like rare vases. And, quite visibly, Serena is the fashionably late sort who accessorizes for each match while the prompt Justine is more functional with her displays.

“I cannot live without my watch,” Justine said, adding, “I sleep with it. I take my shower — everything.”

Justine and Serena will never be in sync on the surface, playing the part as the odd couple when they appear in tonight’s quarterfinal of the United States Open.

And, ordinarily, there would be some delicious drama surrounding the differences between two players who have not always been on each other’s buddy list. But now, the contrasting rivals have a common bond: Out of complex family dynamics, they have managed to convert personal happiness into a performance strategy.

Joy has been good for their games. Hooray, inner peace.

Justine and Serena have recently found an almost Zen center amid their peripatetic careers and, along the way, discovered a professional respect for each other. Revenge is so yesterday.

“We both have been very strong mentally on the court,” Henin said of Serena, whom she has beaten in the quarterfinals of the last two majors. “She won Grand Slams; I did. She’s been No. 1 and I’ve been. So it’s great. You know, now let’s go and play and we’ll see what’s going to happen. But there’s a lot of respect professionally between the two of us, that’s for sure.”

What happened to the “Mean Girls”? Now there are bouquets between these two players, but are heart-dotted I’s good for the Tour? A little friction would be a welcome element to a women’s draw at the Open that has had the same sedating effect as Ambien and the same numbing result as John McEnroe’s endless commercial loop on audiences this past week.

The men’s side of the Open has consistently wowed fans with intense rallies that only end with shots from a pool shark’s repertory. Who was Minnesota Fats yesterday? Tommy Haas or James Blake during a five-set match of double dare?

In the past, you could count on Justine and Serena to tuck a dull women’s Grand Slam event under a revival tent with a match peppered with hot shots and steely glances.

But respect doesn’t have to be boring. At Wimbledon, Serena and Justine traded shots for three sets. Bliss doesn’t have to mean a loss of edge. In fact, contentment may be the best chance to keep Justine and Serena playing through a whole season — each season.

What the women’s tour needs most is player attendance. Maybe all Justine and Serena need to sustain their presence is a healthy family circle.

Over the past few months, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, though never to be confused with amicable exes, have been tolerating each other enough to appear as a united front at big events for their daughters, Venus and Serena. They even shared the same player’s box at Wimbledon this year. Not long ago, at the 2002 French Open, Oracene let loose this telling remark when asked, Where’s Richard been lately? “In the States, where he belongs.”

The dysfunction has apparently softened. As one member of the Williams camp said privately this week, the regular vision of Richard and Oracene means “everyone is here for Venus and Serena and that’s what counts.”

The ins and outs of Serena’s career have paralleled the good times and bad of an off-the-court life that has been often described as difficult, but never fully explained. As a rule, the Williams family gives a little, but never tells all.

There has been similar murkiness around Justine’s career undulations. She has been all at once the feisty competitor who has played Open matches hurt and the mysterious one who withdraws without an explanation. This year, she discovered the art of full disclosure when she pulled out of the Australian Open with a good reason: She was divorcing Pierre-Yves Hardenne.

Hardenne was her boyfriend when Justine cut off contact with her family in 1999. Why is an unknown, but in April, after her older brother slipped into a coma, Justine raced to his bedside to be there when he awoke. The reunion stuck. Her family is part of Justine’s life again.

“I feel great with the decisions I took,” Henin said, adding: “Yeah, I decided to live by myself. Then being in contact with my family, which was great, it’s the best decision I took in the last few years. It’s just a great feeling.”

Justine and Serena have good vibes in common. If only inner peace can heal the curious injuries and end the disappearing acts of two rivals who don’t have to loathe each other to help the Tour. Just be around to play.

selenasports@nytimes.co

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