Justine Henin: Make Room at the Top

S.M. SentineleContributor INovember 10, 2009

LIMETTE, BELGIUM - MAY 14: World number one of women's tennis Justine Henin arrives to announce her retirement to the press, at her tennis club TC Justine N1, on May 14, 2008 in Limette, Belgium. The 25-year-old insists her decision is final and said 'It's the end of a wonderful adventure but it's something I have been thinking about for a long time'.  She is the winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles and 41 WTA singles titles.   (Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images)
Mark Renders/Getty Images

When Justine Henin decided to step down and relinquish her hold on the No. 1 ranking, she effectively knocked down the retaining wall sustaining women's tennis prior to the commencement of the French Open in 2008.

The then-25-year-old Henin was the reigning French Open champion and was expected to repeat. 

Since her retirement, the No. 1 ranking has bounced hand to hand like a hot potato.  

On May 19, 2008, Maria Sharapova seized the top spot. Then, on June 9, Ana Ivanovic snatched it away after winning the French Open crown.  

On Aug. 11, 2008, two months later, Jelena Jankovic became the second Serb to hold the No. 1 ranking. But one week later, on August 18, Jankovic took it back.  

On Sept. 8, after winning the U.S. Open, Serena Williams took over the top spot;  which she held until Oct. 6, when Jankovic took it back. The Serb managed to hold onto the No. 1 ranking at year end.

On Feb. 2, 2009, Serena Williams found herself in possession of the top spot again, after winning the Australian Open.

On Apr. 20, Russian Dinara Safina took over the No. 1 spot which she held almost consistently trading periodically with Serena Williams.  

After announcing her return to the game, Kim Clijsters won the U.S. Open on Sept. 13.

On Sept. 22, Justine Henin announced that she will be returning to competition in 2010.  

On Oct. 6 Serena Williams took possession of the No. 1 ranking. It is her fourth return to the top perch.  

Henin Retrospective 

Henin won seven majors during her career and managed to reign supreme on every surface except grass. In addition, she won 41 WTA singles titles and won almost $20 million in prize money.

She was not the typical long-legged, strong-serving baseline player. Her game was compact necessitated by her small frame. Regardless, she engendered much power and packed a punch. With one of the best single-handed backhands in the game, Henin could serve strong and the combination was often lethal. She was cocky, self-assured, and a fierce competitor.

Nonetheless, her forehand remained her weapon of choice. Many compared her to the Swiss world number one Roger Federer, calling her the Federer of the women’s game because of her accuracy, speed, and arsenal of weapons, including her delicate but athletic net-play ability. 

She was an avid competitor. Even so, you could not miss the vulnerability hidden beneath the bravado front. Henin managed to keep the timid and insecure little girl in her hidden from view. She played tennis full out and it served as her escape valve from unhappiness.

When her mother died, Henin, at age 12, no longer had her staunch supporter. It was her mother who encouraged Henin’s ambitions to play tennis. Justine and her father did not get along or agree on any of Henin’s decisions about her life. They had a permanent parting of the ways over Justine’s attachment, and later marriage, to Pierre-Yves Hardenne in 2002. 

Carlos Rodriguez became her second father when fortuitously for Justine, she had secured him as her coach shortly after her mother’s death. He supported her not only as a guide on the court but also offering her support in her personal life.

In order to stay on the court with the giants of her day: the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport, it became necessary for the tiny Henin to bulk up her frame as much as possible.  But it was her intense desire to reach the top of the women’s game that kept her focused.

The Early Years

In 2003, Henin began the year ranked as No. 5 and ended the year as the No. 2 player in women’s tennis.  In fact, 2003 became the turning point in her career, but it did not start out well.

A breakthrough came in Dubai where Henin defeated Monica Seles for the first time in her career 4-6, 7-6, 7-5.  

Another impressive victory came when Henin defeated Serena Williams, then current world No. 1, at the Family Circle Cup Championships in South Carolina. It was Serena’s first defeat after 22 wins.

The high point came at the French Open where Henin defeated Kim Clijsters in the final in straight sets and won her first grand slam title.  Henin became the first Belgian ever to win a major singles title.

Henin won her second in short orders when she met Clijsters again in the 2003 U.S. Open final and again defeated her in straight sets. The win bolstered Henin as the No. 2 player in the world, just behind Kim Clijsters. 

The Turning Point

It was her victory at the Australian Open in 2004 that signaled her permanent arrival at the top of the women’s game as she achieved the No. 1 ranking.  

In the process Henin accumulated 7,626 points, the highest in the history of the WTA rankings.  Many think this mark will never be equaled. 

Unfortunately, the apex could not be held as nothing is easily won or lasting in the professional game. Her health began to fail. The remainder of 2004 faded away for Henin as she lost her ranking and spent much of it trying to recover her health. 

Regardless, Henin never quit believing—and in her mind she knew she would succeed again to the top of the game, with her coach by her side.

Plagued by Injuries 

Finally, by the 2005 French Open, Henin regained her form. In the final, she defeated Mary Pierce in a lopsided win, 6-1, 6-1.  She had entered the tournament as the No. 10 seed. The win moved her up to No. 7 in the WTA rankings. She was perfect on clay.

But that, too did not last.  Eventually a hamstring injury sidelined her for the rest of 2005. Staying positive became an effort as the injuries and the restlessness did nothing to improve Henin’s spirits or temper her struggle on and off court as her personal life began to fail.

Love Stinks

In 2006, Henin returned to the game assured of her rise back to the top.  She reached the Australian Open finals. Unfortunately, she retired in her final match with Amelie Mauresmo due to a stomach ailment.  She was severely criticized for this because “no one” retires in a grand slam final.  

Henin won the French Open again in 2006, defeating Kim Clijsters, but lost the Wimbledon final to Mauresmo; which people judged only right since Henin had denied Mauresmo her proper accolades at the Australian.

Henin also lost the U.S. Open final to Maria Sharapova—but in making the finals became the first woman since Martina Hingis in 1997 to reach the finals of all four majors in a calendar year. 

She ended 2006 as the No. 1 player by reaching the finals of the WTA Championship, where she defeated Mauresmo—Henin’s first win in this event. 

While victories on court were converging to propel Henin back into the tennis spotlight, her personal life was plummeting to an all-time low.

In January of 2007, Henin withdrew from the Australian Open and announced to the world that her four-year marriage was over. 2007 would also see Henin reunited with her estranged family, openly embracing their participation in her life again.

In 2007, Henin captured another French Open title as well as another U.S. Open championship. She won both without dropping a set. In fact, she had not lost a set at the French since 2004. 

In October of 2007, she sewed up the year-end ranking as No. 1 for the third time in her career. To cap it off, she won the WTA Championship to repeat her feat of 2006. She was undefeated after Wimbledon and the only woman to accomplish that since Graf in 1989. 

The End, Part One

She started 2008 as the No. 1 player and in March became the seventh female player to hold the No. 1 ranking for 12 consecutive months. 

However, she lost the Australian Open to the eventual champion, Maria Sharapova, in the quarterfinals. She was struggling, losing other early matches unexpectedly, and finally she withdrew from the Family Circle Cup citing fatigue.

Abruptly, she announced her retirement from tennis on May 14, 2008 and requested that her name be removed immediately from the WTA rankings. She was still ranked No. 1 and still expected by most to win the upcoming French Championships.

It stunned everyone. 

Now perhaps, unwilling to quit without winning that last major, Henin has decided to come back. It seems that Roger Federer once again inspired Henin to return. If Roger could win the French Open when everyone said he could never do it and recapture his number one ranking, then why couldn’t she?

She will return to the tour at the Brisbane International two weeks ahead of Henin’s first grand slam appearance at the 2010 Australian Open.  

Will we be following the number one ranking bouncing ball again as we did in 2009 or will the veteran Henin tuck it away in her pocket for safekeeping once again?


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