In a sport of distinct individuals, Justine Henin was even more distinct. It started with the remarkable backhand, a lusciously shaped one-hander she could drive with complete freedom. It was supported by supreme focus, an all-business attitude and the kind of killer instinct that is arguably learnable, but perhaps not teachable. Back in 1992, just after she’d turned ten years old, Henin had come from her homeland, Belgium, to watch the Roland Garros final. As she witnessed an epic final between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf, Henin turned to her mother, Francoise, and said: One day you will see me compete on that court.
Alas, Francoise Henin died in 1995. Eight years later, though, the daughter’s prophecy had come true. With the forehand by now a potent partner for the backhand, Henin felt more confident than ever. There had been a wild semi versus Serena Williams, punctuated by brilliant shot-making and, yes, a controversial incident. With Williams serving at 4-2, 30-love, Henin raised her hand, requesting Williams hold off on serving. But the umpire didn’t see Henin’s gesture. Williams then served into the net – but justifiably thought she should have been granted two serves. Henin said nothing, clearly a form of cheating. Henin went on to win that match, 7-5 in the third. Years later she would admit regret for what had happened that day.
The final, played on June 7, was far more prosaic – but also laced with its own subtext. Henin’s opponent was her fellow Belgian, Kim Clijsters. Two years earlier at Roland Garros, the two had met in the semis. On that occasion, Henin led Clijsters 6-2, 4-2, only to lose the last two sets, 7-5, 6-3. In 2003, though, Henin was took charge and never let up, winning her first of four Roland Garros singles titles, 6-0, 6-4.
“I would like to dedicate this victory to my mother, who is watching over me in heaven. I hope you are very proud of me, mother,” said Henin. “She gave me all the energy I needed to win the match. When I woke up this morning, I said, 'You'll have to win. You'll have to do it for your mom.'”
(with thanks to Randy Walker and Mikki Singh for their app, On This Day in Tennis History)
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