Four times, Justine Henin would raise the Coupe des Mousquetaires, the trophy awarded to the winner of the women’s singles title. Those four victories were the personal pinnacles of a career that totaled seven Slam singles wins, an Olympic gold medal, 43 singles titles and 117 weeks ranked number one in the world. Henin’s resume made her election into the International Tennis Hall of Fame as natural as the sparkling one-handed backhand that was her signature shot.
Tragedy & Mystery
But that day in 1992 also set the tone for a parallel path – an arc of tragedy and mystery. Henin’s mother, Francoise, died of cancer in 1995. For reasons never made clear, there were years she never spoke with her father, Jose. Then there was a Henin nephew who died as an infant, an elder sister who died at age three, a grandfather who died – a fact Henin wasn’t told until moments after losing the 2001 Wimbledon final.
Inside the lines, Henin had her share of controversies. In the semis of the 2003 French Open, with Serena Williams serving at 4-2, 30-love, Henin raised her hand, requesting a pause, but failed to notify the umpire – eliciting a double-fault. In the 2004 Australian Open final, against compatriot and friend turned rival Kim Clijsters, Henin baited the chair into making an overrule on a key point. Two years later at the same event, Henin retired versus Amelie Mauresmo when trailing 6-1, 2-0, in the wake of that effort making several cryptic statements.
And yet, such matters as the backstory of her family and intermittent tiffs did little to diminish the sheer joy Henin’s game brought to so many tennis aficionados. It began with hawk-like focus. Henin left no stone unturned in her quest for greatness. At 14, having in large part taught herself the one-handed backhand, she joined forces with Carlos Rodriguez, the coach she’d work with for the balance of her career. As she got older, Henin threw herself into fitness, movement, agility, diet and any other aspect that would aid her ambition.
Emotions & Artistry
Then there was a distinct twining of temperament and style. Henin, standing all of 5’ 6”, was not about to back down versus any opponent. Was her focus a glare? A stare? Merely a squint? Either way, Henin was an assassin, as deeply in possession of the killer instinct as anyone who ever stepped on a court. Never was this more vivid than in her matches versus Serena Williams. Henin won six of her 14 matches versus Serena, four of those victories coming at Grand Slam events. More notable was the attitude Henin showed in those matches; Henin, hunkered down under her seemingly extra-long hat, always going about her business with extraordinary tenacity, a laser-sharp focus and an ice-cold manner rarely seen by Serena’s opponents.
But while the Henin mindset bore an affinity to such driven warriors as Lleyton Hewitt, Michael Chang, David Ferrer and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the way she built points was scarcely utilitarian. Henin had that unteachable ability to turn craft into art. She had little desire to win via attrition. While certainly Henin could defend, even her defense was offense-minded, pointed towards eventual creation rather than mere survival. Witness the slice backhand, struck low as a way of forcing an opponent to use more spin than pace – and then perhaps give Henin a chance to generate her own special brand of offense.
What an offense it was. At her best, Henin created a rainbow of possibilities. Of course it was the backhand that struck the biggest chord. This was a full-bodied, extreme Eastern grip of a stroke, Henin shaping it with a fluid loop, exquisite body turn and a complete willingness to let the stroke go, flinging it to all corners of the court. But only when Henin beefed up her forehand did she start winning majors. One of her more striking shots was the off-forehand, an inside-out drive Henin could hit short, slightly angled so that the result would either be an outright winner or an easy putaway. Even more, Henin played with imagination. Power, touch, the occasional chip-charge return, additional forays to the net, drop volleys, lobs. The court was her canvas, the racquet a paintbrush.
To be sure, at times there were labored qualities to Henin’s game. Her serve was sporadic, at times able to crack aces and sharp placements; but at others exceedingly stiff, labored and inconsistent. The forehand would sometimes lose its shape and margin, triggering frequent errors and an over-reliance on the backhand to carry her through the point. Calibration of such a finely tuned chassis was no easy task.
First-Rate Resume – And Yet . . .
Henin won seven Grand Slam singles titles – at least one a year from 2003 to 2007. In ’07, she beat Serena in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. That same year, she won the French and US Open, finishing number one for the third time.
Then, further mystery: Seemingly out of nowhere, Henin announced her retirement prior to the 2008 French Open. And then, again for reasons uncertain, late in 2009, she announced her return. Henin clearly at that point had unfinished business: the desire to earn the career Slam with a win at Wimbledon (she’d been runner-up in ’01 and ’06, each time losing in three sets). It was indeed a bolder Henin who made it to the 2010 Australian Open final, this time beaten in three sets by Serena. But she struggled for the rest of year, conclusively retiring just after losing in the 2011 Australian Open.
In the end, though, data will hardly do Henin justice. She joins the likes of Roger Federer, Evonne Goolagong, Ken Rosewall, Manuel Santana and Maria Bueno as a captivating stylist. Henin’s approach to the game runs counter to monolithic notions of player development. Technically, yes, she was a product of Belgium. But does a national truly produce a tennis player? Imagine the leaders of a player development system seeing a youth with Henin’s slight frame. Little girl, they would likely tell her, please abandon that one-handed backhand. Here, let us issue you the game that will work. Factories produce automobiles. But tennis players? They come everywhere. Some, such as Novak Djokovic and Chris Evert, make their way up from the ground, roam the earth and build sustainable, sturdy careers. Others, like Henin, streak across the sky.