Saturday, September 8, 2007

US Open Final Preview: Henin vs. Kuznetsova

NEW YORK, NY, USA - For the first time since last year's US Open final the championship round of a Grand Slam will see two members of the world's Top 4 going head to head as Justine Henin and Svetlana Kuznetsova battle it out for the title at Flushing Meadows. Both players have taken part in some memorable matches en route to the final, but with the prestigious US Open title up for grabs the spectators at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center will hope the two protagonists have been saving the best for last.

(1) Justine Henin (BEL) vs. (4) Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) - Henin leads, 14-2

It is perhaps fitting the final Slam of the year will be contested by arguably the two most consistent players of 2007. Henin and Kuznetsova have won a combined total of nearly 100 matches this season, as well as reaching 12 finals and on Monday they will be confirmed as No.1 and No.2 in the latest Sony Ericsson WTA Tour rankings. Saturday evening's final in the Arthur Ashe Stadium will see both players bidding to lift the US Open trophy for the second time in their career in what promises to be an absorbing affair.

US Open History

Henin's semifinal victory over Venus Williams see's her return to the final at Flushing Meadows for the third time in her career and when she steps on court to face Kuznetsova she will be eager to banish the memories of a straight-set defeat to Maria Sharapova in last year's championship match. Aside from her runner-up finish 12 months ago the Belgian's only other foray beyond the fourth round came in 2003 when she went on to lift the title, defeating compatriot Kim Clijsters in the final.

Kuznetsova's finest hour in New York came in 2004 when she shocked the tennis world by storming through the draw to become the lowest seeded player to lift the US Open trophy in the event's history. As No.9 seed she defeated No.5 Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals, before overcoming fellow Russian and No.6 Elena Dementieva in the final itself. However, since this memorable run Kuznetsova has flattered to deceive in Queens, in 2005 she become the first player in the Open Era to fall at the first hurdle of her defence and only managing to reach the round of 16 one year later.

Road to the Final

After becoming only the second player in history to defeat both Williams sisters in a Grand Slam - the other was Martina Hingis at the 2001 Australian Open - Henin has the chance to capture her seventh major on Saturday evening. The 25-year-old has been in imperious form all fortnight and has fully lived up to her billing as world No.1, dropping just 11 games in the opening four rounds before seeing off first Serena, 76(3) 61, and then Venus, 76(2) 64 to take her place in the final as well as the record books.

On the other side of the draw, Kuznetsova's path to her third Slam final has been slightly more erratic, but impressive nonetheless. The 22-year-old world No.4 looked far from championship material during a scrappy second round win over Camille Pin, but promptly followed this up with three assured performances to dismiss Anabel Medina Garrigues, Victoria Azarenka and Agnes Szavay in straight sets. In the semifinals, Kuznetsova took on the in form Anna Chakvetadze and showed tremendous mental strength to overcome her young compatriot in challenging conditions, 36 61 61.

2007 Form

Top seed Henin has enjoyed a truly magical year on Tour, compiling a magnificent 49-4 win-loss record on her way to six more career titles. Among these triumphs was a championship run at Roland Garros and victory at the Tier I Flushing Meadows tune-up event in Toronto. Judging by her performances thus far in New York she has transferred this form onto the greatest stage and if she triumphs over Kuznetsova she will become only the second player since 1996 to capture the Roland Garros-US Open double - the other was Serena Williams in 2002.

Alongisde Henin, Kusnetsova has been one of the standout players on Tour this term, achieving four runner-up finishes and in the week leading up to the US Open secured her first trophy of 2007 in New Haven. The No.4 seed has enjoyed a very consistent season, winning 48 matches and falling prior to the quarterfinals on just three occasions and on Monday will rise to a new career-high ranking of No.2.

Thoughts on the final...

"It will be difficult, that's for sure," Henin said of Saturday's final, "but at the same time I will just try to take my experiences from the past to help me deal with the situation. I know I will have to go out and win the final as Svetlana won't just give me the match. I'll have to be very, very aggressive, but I believe I can do it 100 percent. I have a good record against her [Kuznetsova], but then Venus had a good record against me. Anyway last time we played I lost to Svetlana on clay in Berlin, so Saturday is going to be a little bit about revenge as well."

"I'm really looking forward to playing Justine," Kuznetsova said, "I will enjoy the challenge of playing against the best player in the world because I want to compete and try to be No.1 myself. I don't want to go out there thinking about winning or losing, I just want to enjoy the final and try to play my best tennis and it will be fun to play the evening session on Arthur Ashe, as this will be my first time all fortnight under the lights."

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