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Henin-Hardenne took the queasy way out

MELBOURNE -- It was a final for the birds.

A non-final, really, in the aviary that Rod Laver Arena became yesterday as screeching magpies, sparrows, and mynas flitted above the court, trapped, desperately trying to find a way out of the building. The roof had been closed as defense against a thunderstorm.

But Justine Henin-Hardenne found a way out. She walked out -- quit! -- on the two legs that had been pumping furiously only minutes before. Thus unfolded one of the most curious endings of a major championship bout in tennis annals: a technical knockout and the Australian Open title awarded to Amelie Mauresmo after 52 minutes.

You would have been screeching louder than the birds if you'd paid serious cash to witness the unsatisfactory, abbreviated result, which should be known as the ''Belgian Bellyache."

Henin-Hardenne said, ''My energy was very low and my stomach painful."

Officially it goes as the much-maligned Mauresmo's lone major championship, 6-1, 2-0, 30-0, default.

The extremely athletic Mauresmo, who has been publicly called every kind of choker in her native France -- the old can't-win-a-big-one translates into every language -- deserved some happiness. Even though she was playing smartly, smoothly, strongly, looking every bit a champ, she still has to wonder whether she has fully overcome her inner demons.

Too bad, but historically this tournament will be regarded as a benefit for Amelie. Perhaps now she'll be ''Chanceuse Amelie" (Lucky Amelie) at home because no champion has had so many fortunate breaks: three of her seven foes pulled out before the finish line.

Two were legit, and one of them -- US Open champ Kim Clijsters -- might well have beaten her. Clijsters twisted an ankle, tearing ligaments, in the semis when Mauresmo held a slight lead, 5-7, 6-2, 3-2. In the third round, inexperienced 17-year-old Michaella Krajicek was felled by heat exhaustion after losing the first set.

But Henin-Hardenne, the champ here in 2004, holder of four major titles and destined for the Hall of Fame, walked. She walked away with $458,500, which ought to buy a lot of upset-stomach relief, leaving a bad taste and a blot on the game. In a word she was unprofessional, especially with 15,452 in the stands and a worldwide TV audience eavesdropping.

Remember Pete Sampras staggering and vomiting all over his Flushing Meadow court in 1996, but hanging on in five sets to beat Alex Corretja, and continue to the title?

Or even a few days ago, Dominik Hrbaty, playing four consecutive five-set matches, the fourth with angrily blistered feet? Injuries, like Clijsters's, are a different matter, of course. Mauresmo herself said, ''I couldn't move my neck for three days here, but it didn't show."

Mats Wilander, the Hall of Fame Swede who won here in 1983-84, '88, scoffed, ''You stay on the court until you're obviously sick."

But Henin-Hardenne said, ''I just have to think of myself right now, because it's only me on the court. It's me that is feeling the bad way I was feeling."

It didn't show. She was running, swatting in long rallies, and was being beaten by an upbeat Mauresmo.

However, she said, ''I knew at the beginning I couldn't win. But I wanted to try. When you see it's not working, it's the only way to go out. There was no reason to keep playing."

Few champions, if any, would say that. They hang in and play. Who knows? Something might happen to your opponent.

Like everybody else in the house, Mauresmo was wondering about the sorry affair and whether her explosive start discouraged Henin-Hardenne, deepening the tummyache.

''But what can I say?" said the third-seeded Mauresmo. ''I was ready to die on court today. I've waited so long and worked so hard for this."

Seven years had passed since her only major final. She was 19, beaten on this court by Martina Hingis. From there the great expectations, brittle nerves, and ghastly losses began.

''I've worked a lot on the mental, and gotten stronger," she said. ''Winning the [WTA year-climaxing] Championships two months ago made me a different player." She beat Maria Sharapova and Mary Pierce in the last two matches.

Henin-Hardenne's limp performance seemed all the stranger since she has gamely overcome career-interrupting injuries and illnesses to win the French in 2003 and 2005 and the US in 2003, as well as the Aussie. But she copped out this time, off-key as the frantic birds chirped.

Australian final rounds have been marred by defaults thrice before, though not queasy stomachs. Texan Nancy Richey tore up a knee in the semifinals, giving champ Margaret Court a winning day off in 1966. Court, the all-time champ with 24 singles majors, was the beneficiary also the previous year as Brazilian Maria Bueno collapsed with leg cramps in their third set. Stefan Edberg had to quit with strained abdominal muscles against Ivan Lendl in 1990.

Another final that provoked tremendous negative publicity occurred in the US Championships of 1933 at Forest Hills when the great Helen Wills Moody surrendered to Helen Jacobs, trailing, 8-6, 6-3, 3-0 in an all-American clash. Moody, seven-time champ, walked, too, saying she felt ill.

That was that. A player of her stature in that amateur era seldom bothered to talk to reporters. Maybe she was smart. At least Henin-Hardenne defended herself.

No matter. The ''Belgian Bellyache" was strictly for the birds.

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