Justine Henin, the former world No 1 and seven-time Grand Slam champion, is remembered by tennis fans for many unique traits — a formidable one-handed backhand, phenomenal court speed and the angles she generated. With her 5-foot-5 frame, she darted and reached all over the court and made tennis look picturesque and impossible at the same.
The focal point of this elegant style was her one-handed backhand that John McEnroe called “the best single-handed backhand in both the women’s or men’s game.”
Her forehand was just as strong but her rare one-handed backhand made such an impact that it went on to become the shot that defined her.
Tennis great Billie Jean King believed that Henin didn’t get nearly as much respect as she deserved.
“I don’t know why we’re not talking about Justine Henin all the time because, for her size, she’s the greatest athlete we’ve ever seen,” said Billie Jean King. “I don’t know why she’s not more appreciated - she’s not cutesie-wootsie - but the way she has evolved as a tennis player is unbelievable.”
The legendary Martina Navratilova once famously compared Henin and Federer’s game, saying, “Henin’s offense is just phenomenal, it’s sort of like we’ve got the female Federer or the guys have a male Justine Henin, because she is just head and shoulders above everyone else right now.”
But unlike the Swiss player who doesn’t love the surface, Henin’s game came together at the French Open, where she enjoyed a rare dominance. She won the French Open four times from 2003, including a hat-trick of titles from 2005 after struggling in 2004 due to illness. She had also won the junior girls’ singles title there in 1997 at 14.
In 2006 and 2007 she won consecutive titles without dropping a set, an Open Era record. In fact, she didn’t drop a set in the four finals she played, including a bagel against Kim Clijsters in 2003 and double breadsticks against Mary Pierce in 2005. From 2005 to 2010, she won 40 consecutive sets at Roland Garros. (She was absent in 2008 and 2009 because of her shock first retirement.)
Henin in French Open finals
|2003||Kim Clijsters||6–0, 6–4|
|2005||Mary Pierce||6–1, 6–1|
|2006||Svetlana Kuznetsova||6–4, 6–4|
|2007||Ana Ivanovic||6–1, 6–2|
Henin at French Open
|2R||A||SF||1R||W||2R||W||W||W||A||A||4R||A||4 / 9||38–5||88%|
But her love story with Paris began much earlier. In 1992 when she was 10 years old, Henin’s mother took her watch Roland Garros and the young girl saw the final involving Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. She had then vowed to be there with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen someday. Sadly, her mother died a few years later in 1995 but Henin would go on to live the dream.
Calling it a demanding surface, Henin had said that her prowess on it was a result of growing up on it and learning all her tennis on the surface.
However, the Belgian’s first French Open in 2003 – also her first Grand Slam title after having lost the 2001 Wimbledon final to Venus Williams – came about in rather controversial circumstances. She dominated compatriot Kim Clijsters in the final, losing just four games in the second set.
But in the semi-final, she was up against Serena Williams, who had just completed a ‘Serena Slam’ (holding all four Majors at once) and was involved in an incident that saw her caught in a lie mid-match. After Williams pushed for a decider and then went up a break in the second, Henin did something that former player and current presenter Mary Carillo called ‘cheating’.
Down 2-4, 0-30 in the final set, Belgian first put up her hand to say she was not ready to receive and the gesture was caught on camera. But when the umpire called the American’s second serve and she protested, Henin refused to accept that she had asked Williams to stop serving. Williams ended up losing the set 5-7 with the crowd booing the American.
Other than that, Henin was virtually flawless in France.
As the defending champion in 2004, she lost in the second round to Tathiana Garbin, but that would be her only loss for the next three years.
In 2005, as the tenth seed, she defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova, Nadia Petrova and Mary Pierce en route the title.
In 2006, as fifth seed, she got her revenge over Garbin, before beating former champion Anastasia Myskina as well Clijsters and Kuznetsova again.
In 2007, the top seed beat Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic, and Ana Ivanovic back-to-back to lift her third straight title.
Henin is one most dominant female players at Roland Garros in the Open era with a win-loss record of 38-5, in a brief time having played the tournament just nine times with her first shock retirement seeing her miss title defence in 2008. Only Chris Evert, the greatest female player on clay, and Steffi Graf have more French Open singles titles than her.
This dominance extended on clay and Henin had a solid 85% win percentage (130-22) on the surface, which is third on the all-time list behind Evert and Graf and won 13 of her 43 titles on clay. Her other Majors included two US Open trophies and on Australian Open title, She also spent a total of 117 weeks as the world No. 1 and was the year-end No. 1 in 2003, 2006 and 2007.
In 2011, injuries forced Henin to retire for the final time at the age of 29. Her second innings in the sport was still somewhat successful as she reached the final of the 2010 Australian Open, but she never quite reclaimed the glory years.
Yet in a relatively short career, the Belgian achieved so much that she will always be in the conversation of the greatest female tennis players of the modern era.
Here’s a look at all her four Roland Garros titles:
The 2003 final against Clijsters
The 2005 final against Pierce
The 2006 final against Kuznetsova
The 2007 final against Ivanovic
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