Missing Consistency: Justine Henin's Vacancy Still Felt

Rob YorkSenior Writer IFebruary 8, 2009

Sicilians call it “the thunderbolt:” When a man is struck by a sudden affection for a woman.

For me, the thunderbolt struck during the 2003 U.S. Open, during the semifinal encounter between Jennifer Capriati and Justine Henin (then Henin-Hardenne). I favored Capriati at the time, mainly because she was the only American left in the draw, but also because I wanted to see her continue the comeback story that had propelled her from tennis’ version of Dana Plato to a multi-slam winner.

Overall though, I considered the match a diversion; a time-killer before the men’s semis. In the heydays of Martina Hingis and the Williams sisters, the women’s game had more interesting subplots, but I was far more interested in seeing what the men were capable of doing with the ball.

Then, in an inconspicuous moment, a called let on one of Capriati’s serves, the thunderbolt struck. As the ball struck the tape on the net and bounced to the Belgian’s side of the court, she swatted it away with her backhand. By this point, the fact that Henin had the most exquisite one-handed backhand in women’s (and possibly men’s) tennis was well-known.

Henin, however, didn’t turn to the left as she usually does when setting up for the backhand: She simply drew back her arm and, with no bodily rotation, propelled the ball back to Capriati’s side of the court for the ball boys to retrieve. With nothing more than her arm, she had generated more pace than most grown men who’ve played the sport for decades can hope to muster when using perfect technique.

With respect to the late D.F. Wallace, this was my Henin Moment.

She gave fans much more to appreciate in the match when, despite cramping late in the third set, she still managed to overcome Capriati, one of the women’s game’s most tenacious baseliners and spirited competitors.

She rolled over compatriot Kim Clijsters in the finals to win her second major and finished the year No. 1 in the world. For the next several years her career results were hampered by injuries, illnesses and personal travails, and yet she managed to bag one major a year from 2004 to 2006.

Finally healthy in 2007, and with her personal life in order, she put up her most successful year on tour, winning Roland Garros for the fourth time (and third in a row), then backed it up with a second U.S. Open victory.

In doing so, she did more than enhance her own career: She gave the women’s game a standard bearer. In the late-‘90s it had Martina Hingis, and in the early part of this decade it had Venus and then Serena Williams. Then Hingis retired (the first time) in 2003 and the Williams’ numerous off-court endeavors took their focus off the sport.

For a time, major titles in the women’s game were divvied up among the numerous successful Russian players, Henin, and the Williamses, provided the latter showed up in suitable shape. The women’s game never lacked for surprises, but it did lack continuity. Like with the men’s game between the decline of Pete Sampras and the ascendancy of Roger Federer, this made it harder to follow.

Henin changed that. Here’s an example:

In 2007 Serena Williams, then ranked 81st in the world, shocked observers by showing up at the Australian Open with little preparation and still winning the event. Her opponents prior to the final were unable to exploit her lack of match play (especially Nadia Petrova, who had Williams down 6-1, 5-3), and by the final she had peaked, blowing Maria Sharapova off the court.

It was a stunning display, yet many observers wondered how anyone ranked 81st in the world could string together seven wins at a major. Opinions varied; Williams is, after all, a rare athletic specimen. However, a common view, never sufficiently addressed, was that the competition in the women’s game was weak.

Henin, who’d been finalizing her divorce at the time, returned to the tour that spring. In the next three majors of 2007, she defeated Williams in the quarterfinals, twice en route to winning the title. Few would argue that Henin had as much talent as the American, but she consistently demonstrated that she could beat a not-quite in-form Williams. In fact, she could beat two not-quite in-from Williamses, topping Serena and Venus back-to-back at the 2007 U.S. Open.

She finished No. 1 for the third time in her career. What’s more, she did it with a lean, potent game and a sense of professionalism unseen since her heroine, Steffi Graf. She was the only player on the WTA Tour that I liked watching just for her strokes, and despite being smaller than most of her contemporaries, she was a clear No. 1.

It’s now been a year since the 2008 Australian Open, in which her 32-match win streak was ended in a one-sided thumping from Sharapova. After that, it seemed nothing went right, as she struggled with injury and couldn’t find the form that had propelled her to the top of the rankings.

Even so, it came a shock when The Associated Press announced that she was retiring in May. The fact that this was coming before Roland Garros, where she was three-time defending champion, made it all the more ludicrous.

Who was their source? I remember thinking. The Onion?

But it was no joke. Henin quit the tour, saying that she felt released from the pressure of playing tennis for 20 years. Without her, women’s tennis hasn’t been the same.

Ana Ivanovic, a statuesque Serb who shimmers with star power won in Paris, but has floundered ever since. Sharapova has been injured, but even when healthy her one-dimensional power game makes her an unsuitable replacement at the top of the rankings. Jelena Jankovic may yet win a major, but she is a counterpuncher, and as such is unlikely to dominate.

The Williams sisters have won the last three majors despite some questions about their form. With no one talented enough and dedicated enough to beat them, we may relive the 2007 AO at most majors in our near future.

None of this is Henin’s fault, of course. She apparently believes that her tennis-playing days are over, even though she’s only 26. If so, that’s her right; her supporters can only express how much we miss her.

Especially me: I miss the thunderbolt.