PARIS (AP) – Medical charts and ages, rankings and records won’t mean much when Mary Pierce and Justine Henin-Hardenne clash in the French Open final.

They are players who defy logic and obvious number crunching, reminding fans that champions are more than the sum of their wins and losses or backhands and forehands. Their low seedings never mattered on their marches through the draw to semifinal victories Thursday, nor did the formidable health problems each overcame to get this far.

To the delight of fans on a gorgeous afternoon, the French Pierce and the Belgian Henin-Hardenne all but danced on center court in their latest triumphs over outclassed Russians, Pierce breezing past Elena Likhovtseva 6-1, 6-1 after Henin-Hardenne ousted Nadia Petrova 6-2, 6-3.

Pierce’s flat, deep groundstrokes kept Likhovtseva pinned behind the baseline, or left her frustrated when she ventured to the net and got passed. Henin-Hardenne played with greater artistry and touch, wearing down Petrova and making her look silly on some points. On paper, it would be easy to discount Pierce’s chances to reclaim the French title she won in 2000 and came close to winning when she reached her only other final at Roland Garros 11 years ago. The years between have seen Pierce rise and fall and rise again as she’s dealt with family dramas, coaching changes and injuries – none more serious than the back problems that led her to miss most of 2001 and consider retiring.

She’s won only one tour event, a minor one on grass in the Netherlands, since capturing the French and came into this Grand Slam event seeded No. 21. At 30, she is the oldest French women’s finalist since Martina Navratilova in 1987 and is bidding to become the oldest champion since Chris Evert, at 31, the year before that.

Throw in the fact that Pierce has lost all three of her matches against Henin-Hardenne in straight sets – on clay in Charleston, S.C., and on grass at Wimbledon two years ago, and on a hardcourt at the Olympics last summer – and it wouldn’t seem she has much chance to win this time.

The 10th-seeded Henin-Hardenne, the 2003 champion, also has a Jordanesque number going her – she turned 23 on Wednesday, she’s won 23 straight matches, all on clay, and she’s trying to win her 23rd title.

“It’s my lucky number,” she said. “I hope it will keep going.”

Yet consider the intangibles. Pierce, when she’s on, still has some of the hardest and most accurate groundstrokes in the game. Though she lacks finesse and quickness in moving side to side, she can dictate points from the baseline, and put them away by moving forward. More than that, there’s her attitude, a go-for-broke feeling and an absence of the pressure she felt earlier in her career.

“It’s a fantastic feeling,” Pierce said, referring to her chances to hold the winning trophy once more.

Someone asked her if it all feels like a fairy tale.

“No, not at all, because I’ve worked very hard,” she said. “I believe in myself, and the few people that believe in me that I have in my life have really helped me a lot to get where I am. That’s why I’m here today, because I had something inside of me when I had my injuries that was telling me, You’re not done. There’s still something for you to do in tennis, still some things for you to accomplish.’ … I just listened to that. That just proves (you should) never really doubt yourself and that voice inside.”

Five years ago when she won, she said, she was at the top of her game. She was 25, old enough to have the experience to win, young enough to recover from match to match. Eleven years ago, at her first final in Paris, she was simply overcome by nerves when she lost to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in two close sets. Pierce said she couldn’t sleep the night before and she worried about what she would say in French if she won.

She took a lot of kidding for her imperfect, American-Canadian accented French in those days. She was born in Montreal and grew up in Florida but claimed French citizenship because her mother was born in France. Her French is fluent now, less accented after living and training the past year in Paris under the coaching of her brother, David, and she’s become more of a favorite of fans here.

“I just keep on persevering and believing in myself and keep working hard,” she said. “There are no secrets. Hard work always pays off, sooner or later.”

That has been the formula, too, for Henin-Hardenne.

“It’s a beautiful story,” Pierce said regarding Henin-Hardenne’s journey through illness and injury, as well as her own. “Look at what Justine has been through. She’s awesome. I really appreciate her and admire her as a person, and also as a player.

“Once you get to the top of the game, there are tons of girls now that can play really great tennis. We’ve got at least 10 that can win a tournament any week. So when you come down to it, it’s more the mental part of the game and being able to deal with the little things that make the big difference.”

Henin-Hardenne has mastered the little things and coped with the big ones. A blood virus and knee injury kept her off the tour for seven months, and she’s been troubled by a back injury throughout this tournament. She’s had to learn to limit her schedule and conserve her energy between matches.

“I’m getting tired a little bit,” she said. “It’s been a lot of tennis in this tournament. I’m feeling my legs a little bit heavy, and my (back) injury is not getting better – but it’s not getting worse, either. I will have to give my best one more time and then take a rest.

“I feel like I’m at home here. There are a lot of memories coming back. Playing a final here is such a reward after being out for so long.”

AP-ES-06-02-05 1624EDT


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