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Henin perfect again in third straight title

PARIS -- An hour after clutching her fourth French Open trophy, Justine Henin cradled other precious cargo in her arms: her 6-week-old niece.

Talking and laughing with friends and relatives in a lounge just
off center court, Henin slowly rocked her brother's baby, then
gently kissed her head. As much as a sixth Grand Slam title meant
to the top-ranked Belgian, this scene was worth far more.

For Henin, life off the court has long presented far more
problems than life on it. So after overwhelming No. 7 Ana Ivanovic
of Serbia 6-1, 6-2 Saturday for a third consecutive French Open
championship, Henin was thrilled to be able to sip champagne
alongside family members with whom she only recently re-established
contact.

"It's been a huge step in my life in the last few months. And I
was glad I could give them this victory, because everyone suffered
a lot," said Henin, who went about seven years without speaking to
her father or three siblings. "Today, finally, we are united in
this joy, and we can share this moment."

This was Henin's fifth consecutive final at a major she entered;
she skipped the Australian Open in January while working through
personal issues, including separating from her husband.

Back in the Grand Slam spotlight, back at her favorite
tournament, Henin was as good as ever at Roland Garros, where she's
won 35 consecutive sets.

"It's like my garden," said Henin, 4-0 in finals at the French
Open, 2-4 in finals at the other Grand Slams. "I just feel home
over here."

Henin is the first person since Monica Seles in 1990-92 to win
three French Opens in a row. In Sunday's men's final, Roger Federer
will be trying to win his fourth consecutive Grand Slam title --
something no man has done in nearly 40 years -- while Rafael Nadal
bids for a third straight French Open title.

Despite all of her experience, Henin began slowly Saturday,
double-faulting to get broken in the first game, then falling
behind 40-love in the second.

The 19-year-old Ivanovic was the one in her first Grand Slam
final, but it was Henin who appeared nervous at the outset, perhaps
burdened by wanting to win so badly with her younger sister and two
older brothers in the stands. They traveled from Belgium to root
for her at the 1999 French Open, before their falling-out -- then
didn't attend another match of hers until last week.

"I am looking at her and see that this year she is laughing,
smiling, and taking pleasure in what she does," said her oldest
brother, David. "I used to see her on TV and she did not always
look too happy."

After one flubbed forehand in the first game, Henin glared at
the ball, as though it were to blame for the miscue. In the second
game, though, it was Ivanovic who began to get tense.

"It just hit me, I guess," Ivanovic said.

The first sign of trouble came on her awkward serve tosses; she
had to catch the ball and start again. Henin broke back to 1-1 with
a backhand that clipped the net and danced over. The next time
Ivanovic served, she double-faulted twice, including at break
point, then hung her head.

That was part of a stretch in which Henin won 19 of 23 points
and eight consecutive games.

By then, fans were regularly chanting, "Ana! Ana!" in hopes of
getting her going. But Ivanovic kept making mistakes -- she finished
with 26 unforced errors, twice as many as Henin, plus five
double-faults -- and her face was flushed.

"If I could control my emotions better," said Ivanovic, who
upset No. 2 Maria Sharapova in the semifinals, "it would be a much
different match."

Maybe. But Henin was superb and never let up. Even when Ivanovic
made yet another miscue to make it 6-1, 4-1, Henin let out an
"Allez!" ("Let's go!") as the ball sailed out, as if things
were tight and the point were vital.

"It was important for me to show that I wanted to win every
point," Henin said. "And not let her come back."

To reinforce that, Henin's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, gave her
three envelopes containing notes -- one to be opened if leading by
three games, another if she served for the match, and a third if
she won.

"What I'm saying with the note is, 'This is what you have done
to get to this stage, now continue,"' Rodriguez said. "It's
simple."

TV cameras caught the second note, which Henin dutifully opened
during the changeover before she served out the last game. Among
the messages, handwritten in all capital letters: "Allez."

Four points later, the match was over. Henin ended it with a
forehand volley, then flung her racket behind her and leaned on the
net, closing her eyes and exhaling.

Soon, she was making eye contact with her siblings and
Rodriguez. During the on-court trophy ceremony, Henin spoke about
her father, who watched on TV, and made reference to her late
mother, who brought a 10-year-old Justine to Roland Garros to watch
a tennis match in person for the first time.

"That was my heart that was talking," Henin said later. "What
happened in the past is the past, and I just want to move forward,
and look forward, and enjoy every moment of my life with them back
in it now."

She wouldn't discuss what precipitated the estrangement, nor
what prompted the reconciliation. Her brother David said things
changed when he was in a car accident this year and awoke from a
coma to find Henin in his room.

"We were separated a long time, too long a time, and coming
together again is a very powerful thing," he said. "That happens
in many families, that the parents lose contact with their kids,
that brothers and sisters do not speak to one another anymore. It
happens all the time, but we're talking about it here because she
is famous."

Famous for swinging a mean racket and for mastering the rigors
of clay.

Now, Henin finds joy away from tennis, too.

"Emotionally, I had to deal with so many things in the last few
months, good things, bad things," Henin said. "But I just tried
to stay very focused, concentrate, get my motivation, and just try
to be happy on the court, and I felt great today."