Justine Henin Retires?!
by Dan Martin | May 15th, 2008, 4:05 pm

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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29 Comments for Justine Henin Retires?!

Daniel Says:

I would also include Hingis in that post Graf/Seles era. She almost did the Grand Slam at age of 16, loosing that “epic” RG final to Graf.

At least this Henin retiring will give more drama to WTA, since all the Slams are wide open to anyone who wants it.

PJ Says:

Daniel, Hingis’ loss at Roland Garros at the age of 16 was to Iva Majoli. She lost that match to Graf two years later.

Dan Martin Says:

I agree Hingis is one of the best and most accomplished player of the post-Graf/Seles era.

Andrew Miller Says:

It really is upsetting to see Henin retire. I hope that some junior women’s player, somewhere, took a look at the flair of Henin’s game and said to herself: “I want to be a fighter like that.” We have not yet, on the men’s side, seen the real impact of Federer, who, like Sampras and Becker and Edberg, will one day find himself face to face with a version of himself. Personally I’d like to either see a beautiful game win one big one (cmon Hantuchova! Verdasco, hire Brad Gilbert darn it!) or see a lady who built there game like Henin, but will be a lefty.

Could you imagine a lefty Henin? I would say it could be like P Snyder, but P Snyder has no mental game. That girl Dellaqua had a nice run in Oz. Maybe some player from South America whose role models are Sabatini and Henin, but who is a lefty. The one hander could be unreal…

Here’s waiting for the future of women’s tennis…perhaps there’s another clever Russian someone in the crystal ball.

Lieven Says:

Seeing Henin leave the WTA circuit is a big loss for women’s tennis in general and Belgian sport in particular. I wonder what her coach Carlos Rodriguez will be up to now as he was coaching her since more than 10 years.

Larry Says:

Complete politically correct lie about Serena – she was the one at fault as the classless wonder always is.

Kenan Says:

Complete politically correct truth about Henin’s deplorable sportsmanship at the 2003 French Open. Serena was completely in the right. Nor was this even close to being Henin’s only incident of cheap gamesmanship on the court during her career.

Dan Martin Says:

Look I like Henin and her game is awesome. However, I have to honestly assess the 03 incident and such.

I like tennis bullies not tennis sissies Says:

henin retiring during the australian open final was far more offensive and wrong

Daniel Says:

Thanks PJ, my mistake, the graf match was 1999.

Von Says:

Henin’s behavior toward Serena in the ’03 FO was deplorable. Why did she have to lie? That situation caused Serena to lose her cool, and Henin won.

The other episode with Mauresmo was just plain unsportsmanlike — she claimed she couldn’t play anymore but stood up throughout the whole awards ceremony.

I was never a Henin fan, but she retired in grand style — the reigning FO Champion and the No. 1 player. Usually players wait until their rank has plummeted and cannot be changed, but she did it the right way. Goodluck to her in all of her future endeavors.

fed is afraid Says:

she should have defended her french and US and then left, what’s up with retiring in the middle of the season?

April Says:

I really like the way you spoke of Henin overcoming her personal issues, such as her painful divorce and her injuries and illnesses. I was checking out the Tennis Channel’s website for the latest tennis news, expecting to see that Federer or Nadal played in and won a match. I lost my breath when I read that the tough-as-nails Henin retired. I will personally miss her.

Von Says:

fed is afraid:

“she should have defended her french and US and then left, what’s up with retiring in the middle of the season?”

Maybe she didn’t feel she could have done so one more time — recently she had been not playing too much because of fatigue and the virus that has plagued her for so many years. At least this way, she can go out as being the title holder and that is a better feeling.

JCF Says:

Despite being small and outpowered by the big girls, she not only held her own against them, she was better than them (#1 in the rankings) and fended them off by a huge margin. I doubt a small guy like Rochus or Santoro could have been best in the world.

JCF Says:

“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.”

Why is this even a big deal? Did anyone notice that Mauresmo’s previous two opponents also defaulted from the match in the same manner? Why does nobody criticize Clijsters for doing the exact same thing in the semis? Is it because it’s a finals match that it’s against the rules? How many times has Djokovic retired not from injury but from fatigue? How is this not even worse than retiring from an upset stomache? Have you tried playing with a stomache ache? It’s painful to do anything, much less play a match.

Giner Says:

What a distasteful article, to call someone out on their retirement. It’s not like she hasn’t been called out enough on it already, so your point has already been made. To remind everyone of it when she retires is like saying Andre Agassi was an unsporty asshole during his Wimbledon SF match against Rafter, and a number of other incidents, (He berrated a wimbledon lineswoman once too) when he retired in 06.

Give the girl a break. Everyone has already ripped her on it so it’s not like no one knew about it. Get over it. Even if she hadn’t retired this would have been something to be mentioned over and over for the rest of her career and even after. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume Dan Martin would not call out the Williams sisters on their habitual ungraciousness in defeat when they retire.

Ellie Says:

There was absolutely NO REASON to bring up the stupid “hand” thing in 2003… it had precious LITTLE to do with Serena losing… a person can certainly also wonder why, if Serena saw Justine’s hand up to wait, she went ahead and served?? Is that sportsmanship? I agree totally with the other poster, to bring up this nonsense, especially about 2003 when not even a POINT was lost becuase of Justine signalling for her to wait let alone the match, is just distasteful considering Justine is retiring. Leave that girl alone once and for all. In some way I feel happy that she is retiring, she won’t have to hear or read this crap American writers have done to her for years, all because she dared to be great enough to unseat Serena Williams. Justine henin was a great player and a great sportsperson in every way, a clean player who always gave credit to opponents unlike Serena Williams, and deserved a better farewell article than this.

Bill Says:

I’m wondering if when Serena Williams retires, Dan will grace us with a catalogue of her supposed “sins” as well in his farewell article to her… classless and petty. I loved her game, and I loved the way she was on court and off, so no problems with her personality here..

ertorque Says:

With Justine’s retirement, how many women Top20 player plays with single backhand? Maybe only Mauresmo and Shenay Perry…………. Women’s tennis will now mostly be one-dimensional.

Glenn Says:

I don’t understand the guff about the 2003 Seminfinal incident (heck, I wasn’t even a tennis fan back then). If Henin signalled she was not ready, and Serena served anyway, and she faulted, then that should be considered a fault.

Can someone please explain why Justine is being blamed for bad sportsmanship?

Ellie Says:

Good question Glenn. I’ve seen things ten times worse happen in a professional tennis match, than a player putting her hand up to stop a serve, and a person missing a serve and getting the fault. The reality is, if Serena saw that hand that well, she should have stopped serve, not gone ahead and served, it actually may have been she who was the bad sport. Many times I’ve seen worse things, yet Justine and the fault seems to have taken on this life of it’s own, as if it’s the most rotten thing to ever happen on the tennis court. The whole thing was totally overblown and just used as a battering ram against Justine for years, every time she did something great, we got “the hand” screamed and whined about instead of what was really important. Justine was a threat on the tennis court to the commentator’s and American writer’s precious Williams sisters… so they tried to make her a villain in any way they could. Serena Williams is one of the worst sports I’ve ever seen in tennis… but you don’t hear about all her bad behavior over and over again,, the bathroom breaks, the constant retirements and withdrawals, the verbal intimidation and cursing at opponents on the court, like today, suddenly “her back froze” and she couldn’t play her match, yet she then says she’s just taking a break before she wins the French Open and her back doesn’t hurt that much. Who else in tennis could get away with that and not be slammed? Seems our tennis writers and talking heads turn a blind eye to alot she does, and accentuated and exaggerated everything Justine ever did to make her look bad. It really turned me against American tennis. I never root for Americans anymore, and that’s sad, because I am one.

freakyfrites Says:

It’s not that Justine doesn’t have the right to retire. But we as fans have the right to be pissed about it. Yes, it’s her life and her career (obviously!), but without the fans who love watching her play (and help pay her bills) she’d be just like the rest of us weekend hackers at the public park.

Andre did it right – or at least he did right by the fans. He played his heart out for us: he risked looking old, tired, and not that good. Why? Obviously not for the money or the fame. He did it for us fans.

Justine’s a private person – she does everything for herself and her personal love (or lack of love) for the game. Fair enough, but I prefer Andre’s way.

Dan Martin Says:

I brought up Justine’s behavior because she did wrong by way of the sport onthose two occasions. As someone who plays and has coached tennis, I can say blatant gamesmanship is a real issue with people leaving the sport. I spoke to someone who played juniors at the time of John McEnroe who said his nickbame as a junior was “Captain Hook” because he hooked people on line calls all of the time. In I would have brought that up in a column about McEnroe. Clijsters did default the 06 AO semifinals after spraining her ankle severly and being taken off of the court in a wheelchair – hardly the same thing as an ibuprophen/asprin induced stomach ache that led to Henin’s retirement in 06. Having said all of that I came around on Henin in 07. Her game was always fun and downright impressive to me. Her personality and maturity were evident last year. Agassi was easy to dislike through 2/3rds of his career yet matured into a great person and ambassador for his game. If someone writes about Agassi should they ignore him spitting on an umpire at the 1990 U.S. Open or the whole mocking of Kucera in 1998 or tanking an 89 Davis Cup match vs. Carl Uwe Steeb? I think ignoring the failings makes the successes seem less impressive. I like Henin and wish she had not retired and think if she had a few rough patches in her career so be it.

Ellie Says:

But that’s just the point Dan, nobody DOES write about Andre spitting on anybody, or Nicolas Keifer throwing a racquet in the air to obstruct Sebastian Grosjean at net and costing him the point, that was forgotten within a week, or Serena’s many timely bathroom breaks and back injury time outs, or Jennifer Capriati cursing out linespeople all the time, and nobody is going to write about Davydenko retiring against Federer in the finals of Estoril when there really wasnt anything wrong with him, then going straight to another tournament the next day and getting deep into the draw. Someday if Davydenko is a great champion, there will be no mention of his retirement in a final at Estoril nor will he be accused of “bad character”, he will be easily forgiven. Those “sins” of other players will all be forgotten, they were forgotten almost as soon as they happened, I’ve watched tennis almost all my life and have NEVER heard about Andre spitting on an umpire, and I’ve watched countless matches of his.. Nobody ever writes about the way Jimmy Connors erased a mark in a clay court match before an umpire could see it, when it would have given his opponent the point.. you know why? Because writers and commentators didnt’ want to focus on it with him, they conveniently forgot he did it… but with Justine I heard about her “hand” in almost every match she played for five years, at least five times a year, in every big match she was in, I heard about her so called “BAD CHARACTER” as a warmup before the match… it’s ridiculous the double standard applied to some players. In the future, I expect every second or third article I ever read about Justine to talk about “her hand” before her record. In twenty years, I will be reading about Serena’s missed serve at the FO, but I bet I won’t read about her dad calling Tracy Austin and Chris Evert “white trashers” or her calling Maria Sharapova a “f*ck*n B” loudly, while beating her badly at the AO, or saying Justine only beat her with “lucky shots” at the US Open. I watched Kiefer in all his matches this week in hamburg, not one word about his MUCH WORSE behavior vs Grosjean.. not one word. Explain that.And speaking of forgetting I guess the incident with Coria and banned substances never happened, because I sure don’t see anybody write about it much. And if Sesil Karatancheva somehow becomes a darling of the WTA in her career return, her two year ban for substances will be brushed under the rug as just an unfortunate incident that needs to be forgotten. If an act of bad sportsmanship is something that needs to be hacked on endlessly throughout the player’s career, why not for all players and not just a few? And why is a bathroom break, or a retirement, or loud grunting, or serve or shot interference for one player a major sin, and for another, no big deal?

Glenn Says:


I did not watch the 2003 Henin-Williams match. Your comments (first post) seem to indicate that you believe Henin’s victory ITSELF should be called into question, instead of just one supposedly unsportsmanlike behavior by Henin. Can you please explain?

Joshua Says:

Okay, so I was as disappointed as everyone else at Henin’s retirement in the Australian final (although I don’t think she did it, as some have suggested, merely to deny Mauresmo a “real” win) but the constant resurfacing of the ’03 French Open incident befuddles me.

We’re talking about one point. Yeah, it would’ve been nice of Henin to acknowledge the incident and allow William a let. But no player is under any obligation to give anything to their opponent. If this theory were taken to its logical extreme, it would be “gamesmanship” not to correct an erroneous line call that hurts your opponent. In which case, every player on both the ATP and WTA tours has committed an Henin-grade sin approximately five times a week.

If one bad call during one first serve in one point caused her to lose a match, then she deserved to lose it.

Remember when an umpire erroneously awarded Karolina Sprem an extra point in the second set tie break of a Wimbledon match against Venus Williams? Both Sprem and Williams were confused by the incident and Williams didn’t protest at the moment, assuming she’d lost count. After she lost, she shrugged it off with, “one point doesn’t make a difference.”

Of course, one point can make a difference, especially in a tie break when the player who is already up a set is given a free point. Nevertheless, Venus was gracious and accepted the loss as a regrettable but not-cataclysmic episode.

Meanwhile, Serena is denied a second first serve at 4-2, 30-0 in the third set and she, and her fans, paint Henin as some kind of craven monster who stole the entire match with one raised hand.

If Henin’s behavior during a single, non-decisive point in a single non-decisive game is the best the anti-Heninites can come up with, I say it reeks of bias to devote any copy, much less an entire subhead of a career recap, to her “gamesmanship.”

Casey L. Says:

“Clijsters did default the 06 AO semifinals after spraining her ankle severly and being taken off of the court in a wheelchair – hardly the same thing as an ibuprophen/asprin induced stomach ache that led to Henin’s retirement in 06.”

I just couldn’t help but let this comment go uncommented on, Dan, because it seems indicative of how little some in the press seem to know about what happened to Justine Henin in Australia.
First of all, her condition was hardly an “ibuprophen/asprin induced stomach ache” as you describe it. During the first part of ’06, Henin was taking non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs for tendinitis in her shoulder. When she retired from that match, the WTA characterized her condition as gastrointestinal illness, but she wrote on her website that the drugs caused her to suffer a stomach ulcer, and that she had never felt such pain. Later, she said that her only regret about that match was that she tried to play at all. Unfortunately, those parts of the story never got mentioned, at least in most of the English-speaking press.

Rich S Says:

Justine Henin is going to be sorely missed. A little “mighty mite” with an awesome backhand that always got her opponent going in the opposite direction! She could deliver it at just the last minute!!!!
Sure she was quiet. Why wouldn’t she be w/the way the media climbed all over her!!!!!
Serena Williams is a totally nonclass act and is totally overrated as a tennis player and her current play is proving it. She’s complaining she’s not ranked higher but she simply can’t win her matches, plain and simple!
Then she carries on about the calls and such and makes herself out as the a– she truely is.
Justine never complained. She may have been at the center of a couple of questionable matches but I myself believe Serena was at fault more than was made out and against AM, maybe she just couldn’t make it. Only Justine knows and who are we to make a medical diagnosis!!
I’ll miss her, the WTA will definately miss her and I hope she might reconsider and come back. I think there’s still an aweful lot of figh left in the small but strong body!!!!!!

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