Beloved Belgian Loses in French Open

In the 44th minute of her match Wednesday, the woman with the most famous ponytail in France took the lead for the first time.

Eleven minutes later, Justine Henin-Hardenne, the top-seeded player in the 2004 French Open, was trailing again, 5- 4.

It was a cloudy day. Not much was working for her: Henin-Hardenne's backhands, forehands, serve, all seemed to find the net.

It must have been unnerving. Her picture is plastered across subway platforms and magazine covers in this tennis-loving capital. In each picture, her ponytail flies out behind her cap, just as it did in today's match.

But 59 minutes into her second-round contest, Henin-Hardenne double faulted to face a break point, then bobbled her trademark backhand, pushing it into the net to lose the first set, 7-5.

The Parisian crowd, which booed American Jennifer Capriati on the same court the night before, was still in Henin-Hardenne's corner.

"Allez, Ju-steen!" shouted teen admirers. They are enamored of a Belgian of diminuitive stature (think Napoleon) and scrappy attitude (think Edith Piaf or Joan of Arc). Her persona plays well in France.

But Tathiana Garbin, an Italian, wasn't impressed. She quickly broke the Belgian's serve to take a 2-0 lead in the second set. The crowd bellowed, chanted, and clapped.

When Garbin reached deuce in the third game, on Henin-Hardenne's serve, the fans cheered for her to make a quick push to a 3-0 lead.

‘It’s Frustrating’

But the Belgian hung on, and her opponent grew nervous. The 2-0 lead, built on careful placements, drizzled away to 2-1. Errors started jumping off Garbin's racquet. A netted service return, two missed overheads, the points started coming harder. Henin-Hardenne pulled even, at 2-2. Garbin's strength seemed to be fading.

The crowd jumped to "Jus-tine, Justine," encouraging their adopted Belgian.

But Garbin wasn't finished, and when she staved off a break point and then volleyed away her opponent's recovery of a drop shot, the crowd roared approval.

It roared, too, when Henin-Hardenne broke back to take a 3-2 lead. At 91 minutes, the match threatened to settle into a predicted pattern.

It didn't. In the end, Henin-Hardenne lost the momentum and the set, 6-4, and told reporters, "I couldn't play my game. It's frustrating, but it's the choice I made."

A choice made all the more embarrassing by the publicity posters creating the biggest and most famous ponytail in all of France.