Champions Henin and Kuerten Bid Farewell to the French Open

Matthew SchiffmanAnalyst IMay 27, 2008

The second week of this year’s French Open won’t be the same on the men’s or the women’s side of the draw. No doubt the French crowd will feel like there’s just something missing.

Sure, big name players like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, and Serena Williams will be there, but two perennial powers will be absent.

Neither Justine Henin nor Gustavo Kuerten will be competing in the second week of the 2008 French Open. Henin, a four-time champion who owns the last three French Open titles, shocked the tennis world when she announced her retirement only a couple weeks ago.

Kuerten, a three-time champion who won his first French title as an unseeded player, fell on Sunday in the opening round in what he said was the final match of his ATP career.

Sure, Henin hails from Belgium while Kuerten is from Brazil, but there are no two players that the French crowd loved more than these two. In 2003 Henin became adored at Roland Garros when she won her first major tournament. During the trophy presentation she explained how much it meant to her to win in Paris and that she had predicted that she would one day play there (though she didn’t know she’d win there four times).

Henin always made it known that the French meant the most to her of any tournament. That’s not something that is all too common to hear on the WTA or the ATP where most players are gunning for the illustrious Wimbledon title. But Henin loved Paris and the fans there embraced her, almost as one of their own.

Henin made her presence felt in the tennis world when she won the French Open in 2003. She was already a well-respected player, but the win propelled her career to unparalleled heights. Over the next few years, she was the most dominant player in the women’s game.

After that win in Paris, Henin went on to claim six more Grand Slam titles and finished the year ranked No. 1 in the world three times, including 2007, just months before she announced her retirement. Henin’s decision came as such a shock to the tennis world not only because of her age (she’s a couple weeks short of turning 26), but also because of her recent dominance.

Henin finished last year on a 25-0 run, making her 2007 match record an astounding 63-4. The .940 winning percentage was the second best in women’s history, not to mention Henin made over $5 million just in earnings in 2007, a feat never before accomplished by a woman in a single year.

And if Henin was adored by the French fans, then Kuerten, or "Guga" as he was better known, could be considered a god. 

Guga always carried himself so loosely, rocking back and forth on his slight frame between points. No matter what the score, it seemed that Kuerten’s infectious smile always beamed while he was playing in Paris. With his relaxed body language, carefree attitude, fluid groundstrokes, and, of course, distinctive moans on court it’s no wonder why the French crowd fell in love with the eccentric South American.

Kuerten’s career was not as decorated as Henin’s, but in its own respect probably just as fulfilling. Guga burst onto the tennis scene in 1997 when he won the French Open as the 66th-ranked player in the world.

But it was in 2001 that Kuerten immortalized himself at Roland Garros. After winning back-to-back French Opens, Guga drew a heart on Court Philippe Chatrier to show his love for the Parisian crowd. At that moment, not even a Frenchman would have been cherished more than Kuerten was.

Guga’s three French Open titles were the only majors he won during his career, but in 2000 Kuerten became the first South American man to finish No. 1 in the world in the ATP rankings.

Sadly, we were robbed of witnessing Guga’s masterful play for more than just a few years. Persistent injuries, including two hip surgeries, plagued his career.  But Kuerten made good of his time, earning a reputation as one of the most entertaining and well-liked players on the ATP.

Henin and Kuerten were great champions, especially on the clay courts. Both will be remembered as two of the best clay courters of their eras, if not ever.

But each said goodbye in a very different way.

When Henin announced her retirement in a news conference, everyone’s mouths dropped to the floor. It seemed that she had so much tennis left in her. Kuerten, meanwhile, seemed to physically wilt away on court. He struggled through matches the last few years, but managed to give the French crowd one more effort on Court Philippe Chatrier before graciously bowing out.

Henin’s retirement was abrupt, while Guga made his last as long as possible. Regardless, both will be equally missed at this year’s French Open. No doubt French fans will remember them as two of their own and no doubt the cheering this year simply won’t quite be the same.