I had a number of topics in mind for my next column. I thought maybe I could start referring to Richard Gasquet as “Leconte 2.0” but then figured that was unfair to Leconte at this point. I thought about throwing my opinion into the ring on ways tennis could be better promoted in North America. I was considering looking at Novak Djokovic’s start to 2008. All of those topics and anything else that crossed my mind were immediately pushed to the background when I saw a small line floating across an ESPN screen during lunch announcing Justine Henin’s retirement from tennis.
What can anyone really say about this? Henin has had some injury and illness issues over the years, but I have no doubts that Henin could still win more major titles. My guess is that this is more of the case of psychological burnout than of being punch drunk from larger players bullying her or being overly worn down by injuries. Maybe Henin is an artist at heart and knew she could never create anything like her 2007 campaign again so she decided that the highs of winning a few more big events would be caricatures of her best work. Maybe Henin’s life is now in balance as she has moved past her divorce and reconciled with her family. Maybe Henin simply had enough of the tour and figured that she was fooling herself in the early parts of 2008. Regardless of the maybes, I think Henin is retired from the WTA tour and Grand Slam play. She does not strike me as the type of person who would make such a move on a whim. The only thing that might draw her back would be the lure of a Wimbledon singles title.
Assessing Henin’s Game
My first chance to watch Henin play was during her 2000 3rd round U.S. Open match vs. Anna Kournikova. CBS was not happy to see Kournikova lose 6-4, 7-6, but John McEnroe kept raving about Henin’s backhand. It was indeed an awesome shot, but I was not in anyway aware that I was seeing a great player for the first time. By 2001, Henin halted Jennifer Capriati’s calendar year Grand Slam hopes in the Wimbledon semifinals with a 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory. Henin displayed toughness in her championship loss to Venus Williams by taking the second set 6-3 despite winning only 1 game in the other two sets.
In these matches it was obvious that Henin was more than a sublime backhand. She moved well and most importantly fought hard during her matches. I think her game can and should be described in glowing terms. Henin possess great variety and shot making. She moves well and plays with aggression. On a WTA tour that often makes tennis look like a contest of players with similar technique and game plans (hit the ball hard), Henin could slice, she could serve bigger than most players on tour despite being slightly built and could make her opponent move on diagonals rather than simply pounding ground strokes back and forth.
Still, I think Henin’s best quality was her desire to win. It is difficult for players who develop tendencies at very early ages to adventure out and develop new shots, but Henin developed a new serve during her time on tour. Henin improved her game because she wanted to be #1 and loved to compete. Henin’s steely resolve intimidated other players and did not project the warmest of personas, but she was a fighter and that is something tennis should always celebrate.
A Stark Look at Two Lows
Justine Henin’s 2003 French Open semifinal victory over Serena Williams will always be a point of controversy. Gamesmanship has sapped the fun out of tennis for players at multiple levels. Anyone who has played tennis somewhat competitively is familiar with the reality that some players call balls that land near the line “out” as a rule of thumb.* Other pesky habits such as fast serving, stalling and intentional distractions while serving are all present in competitive tennis. Henin’s sportsmanship versus Serena was deplorable on that day. Henin knew she had signaled to Serena she was not ready to receive serve, but the Belgian did not offer Serena a let after a missed first serve. Trash talking, stalling, locker room intimidation may all have an impact on the outcome of a match, but distaste for another competitor does not excuse failure to acknowledge a signal of not being ready to return service.
Henin defaulting during the 2006 Australian Open championship while trailing Amelie Mauresmo 6-1, 2-0 was another incident that impacted her reception by the media and fans alike. This was not Stefan Edberg defaulting with torn abdominal muscles during the 1990 Australian Open men’s final. The injury or discomfort Henin described from taking pain medication was not something that could worsen and threaten her career. Many felt she should have played the rest of the match to give Mauresmo the satisfaction of completing a match to win her first major title. Regardless, it did set up a nice back story for the 2006 Wimbledon final. Mauresmo won this second Grand Slam final clash of 2006 in dramatic fashion 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Praise for Historical Highs
I bring up these two ugly incidents because Henin’s tennis in 2007 was not filled with such controversy. Her marriage was behind her and her family was reunited. She played brilliant tennis in 2007 and absorbed disrespectful comments as well as could be expected. She even looked at home in New York winning the U.S. Open for the second time. 2007 may have been Henin’s masterpiece and if that was the case it was a fitting final word on her career.
Henin’s career accomplishments are strong. Her 4 French Open, 2 U.S. Open and 1 Australian Open championships place her at worst as a solid second to Serena Williams as the most decorated player in the post Graf/Seles era. Serena Williams could be argued to have accomplished more, Venus Williams may equal or surpass Justine’s accomplishments, and Sharapova certainly could also get there. Nevertheless, Henin accomplished a lot more than most of her peers and did maximize her talents.
From a historical standpoint, she is in the conversation with anyone who holds fewer than 10 major titles not named Monica Seles. It is difficult to compare players in “who would win?” questions across eras, even recent eras, due to changes in racket technologies, strong technologies and sports medicine. I do know I would have liked to see Henin and Steffi Graf play on any surface as Graf’s speed, slice backhand and devastating forehand would be nicely contrasted by Henin’s top spin backhand. Henin played tennis with the sort of variety and competitive zeal that drew admiration from fans and critics alike. Some may not have liked aspects of her personality, but no one can say Henin did not have a lot of game.
Women’s Tour Blues
Losing Henin is not going to be easy for the WTA to absorb. Maybe Ana Ivanovic or Maria Sharapova win the French Open and the WTA gets a marketable face to win the title. Maybe Jelena Jankovic climbs the mountain on clay and establishes a new Grand Slam contender. Maybe Serena Williams wins in Paris for the second time. No matter what, the loss of Henin’s versatility only adds to a tour that already misses Kim Clijsters acrobatics and could use a rejuvenated Amelie Mauresmo. It is hard to understand how Clijsters, Mauresmo and Henin who produced some of tennis’ biggest moments in 2005, 2006 and 2007 are all either gone or irrelevant in May 2008. With Venus and Serena Williams playing light schedules and Sharapova having injury issues, this does not bode well for women’s tennis.
* – Two years ago during recreational league play I hit a volley that found the line, and my opponent candidly told me “If that was interclub or USTA play I would have called that shot out, but for a park league nice shot.” Sure enough after the change over I saw a mark and tennis ball fuzz all over the line. Sadly, this sort of line calling is common in some tennis circles. For this reason, I think pros such as Henin absolutely have to be called out for gamesmanship and failure to show sportsmanship because it is a real blight on the enjoyability of a great sport and the behavior at the top does trickle down.
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