Friday, August 08, 2008

BACKSPIN REPOST: Athena Would Be Proud (August 23, 2004)

As we begin to take note of a whole new batch of Olympic tennis moments in Beijing, it's of interest to remember the one that took place in Athens four years ago when Justine Henin put forth what was arguably the most remarkable performance of her career.

Henin (then still Henin-Hardenne) arrived in Greece in mid-August having not played a match since her shocking 2nd Round upset at Roland Garros in late May (it turned out to be her only loss in Paris from 2003-07). What had begun as a great '04 season for the Belgian had turned into a strange one by the time she decided to play in the Olympics, as the source of her lingering fatigue and illness was still not clear. With absolutely zero match preparation, her prospects weren't seen as bright by most.

It would be the last time Henin would be underestimated.

Pulling herself together against all odds, she advanced through the Athens draw, losing just one set (in a match where she was down 1-5 in the 3rd set, with Anastasia Myskina serving for a spot in the Gold Medal final) and stunning nearly everyone less than a year after her similar physical-war-with-her-own-body victory at the U.S. Open in 2003. After winning in Athens, Henin could only make it through four matches in the defense of her Open title a couple of weeks later.

Finally diagnosed with the cytomegalovirus, Henin didn't play the rest of the '04 season, and missed the Australian Open as she still wasn't physically up to returning to the tour at the start of '05. She didn't play another match until late March.

Even immediately after she completed her Athens run, the accomplishment was seen as quite impressive. But, in retrospect and in light of her actual (then-unknown) physical condition at the time (much like injured Tiger Woods' recently epic U.S. Open golf title) , it might truly be seen as the greatest moment in a career that Henin called an end to this past May. Even if Henin does eventually return to the court in the near future, she'll likely never quite see another moment like the one she pulled off in Greece.

Here's how Backspin saw things back then...

"Athena Would Be Proud (August 23, 2004)

The Queen is back. Long live the Queen... she's now an Olympic Gold Medalist.

With the Goddess Athena surely looking down with pride, Justine Henin-Hardenne proved once again why there's no more reliable female player (or maybe, simply PLAYER, considering Roger Federer's Olympic fate) on the tennis landscape than the world's current (and ongoing) women's #1.

That sound you hear is the rest of the WTA field taking a deep breath, wondering if last week's events means the U.S. Open will soon have the same
distinct -- and familiar -- appearance that so many other tournaments have taken on since a large portion of the WTA tour was annexed as "Queen Justine's Kingdom." Certainly the Belgian's actions in Athens were more reminiscent of her Flushing Meadow heroics last fall than any other event she's played in the twelve months since.

In Greece, JHH knocked off two of her three (so-called?) challengers for her coveted #1 ranking. She overcame one, Anastasia Myskina, after staring down a 5-1 disadvantage in the 3rd set of their semifinal match, maintaining her composure -- despite three months of recuperation from a very nasty viral infection -- in the face of less-than-stellar play and oncoming leg cramps to advance to the Gold Medal Match. In the final, as she did a day after
her epic win over Jennifer Capriati in the U.S. Open semi, JHH came back the next day and easily handled her opponent (Amelie Mauresmo in Athens, Kim Clijsters in NY) with her usual sterling effort.

Henin-Hardenne's absence allowed the Group of Three, the two vanquished Athens foes and Lindsay Davenport, to jockey for position to overtake her in the eyes of the WTA computer. Meanwhile, in England, Maria Sharapova moved to the top of the popularity polls (not that JHH has ever cared about such things) after her Wimbledon triumph. Serena Williams returned, then left again. Her sister Venus did the same, though it wasn't because of another injury. And, in news a little closer to home, fellow Belgian Clijsters remained a ghost with a newly-operated on wrist. The soap opera of the WTA tour has been intriguing both in spite, and because, of the invisibility of the top player in the world. That ends now as the pint-sized female with the Jimmy Connors'-sized heart attempts to show everyone how it's done. Again.

The odds never seem to be in Queen Justine's favor, but for most of the past year and a half she's found ways around that. Her string of consecutive weeks at #1 is now assured of reaching 46 (only six women have ever been #1 for more weeks in their careers), and the site of her biggest challenge for that ranking will still be Flushing Meadow. But Athens makes one question whether, on the morning of September 12, the final outcome of the previous day's Open women's singles tournament will have been any different than the one from last year. The odds would seem to be against it... but that was the case in Athens, too.

Go ahead, Athena. It's all right to smile. Queen Justine just reminded us why she rose to the top of the women's tennis mountain in the first place... and now it's difficult to see her giving up her position as the "WTA's Athena" anytime in the near future.

S: Justine Henin-Hardenne d. Amelie Mauresmo 6-3/6-3
D: Li/Sun d. Martinez/Ruano-Pascual
Bronze: Alicia Molik, Suarez/Tarabini
S: Lindsay Davenport d. Vera Zvonareva 6-3/6-2
D: Craybas/Weingartner d. Gagliardi/Groenefeld

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Justine Henin-Hardenne least for one week, JHH put to rest the notion that a player needs to develop match toughness to win big matches after an extended absence. Little known fact: Henin-Hardenne now needs just a Wimbledon title to join Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi as the only players, male or female, to win all four slams plus an Olympic singles gold.
RISER: Alicia Molik
...Athens' version of Miss Opportunity was surely the Bronze Medal-winning Aussie, who finally proved that she CAN string together a run of successful events. Last week, she knocked off Top 10ers Myskina, Dementieva and Sugiyama. Three weeks ago, she upset Mauresmo, and two weeks ago she won a title in Stockholm. She's now at a career-high #18.
SURPRISES: Ting Li & Tian Tian Sun
...not really a surprise that this Chinese pair, one of the up-and-coming doubles teams, would do well in Athens. But not many expected the #8 seeds to win the Gold, upsetting V.Williams/Rubin and Martinez/Ruano-Pascual along the way. Right on schedule, the Olympics (and the surging Chinese contingent) land in Beijing in 2008.
VETERANS: Lindsay Davenport & Mary Pierce
...Davenport got the headlines with her sixth title of 2004 in Cincinnati, and fourth in her last four events (a 17-match winning streak, the longest on tour this season), but Pierce's wins over Petrova and Venus could mean she'll be a major presence at Flushing Meadow next week, as well.
FRESH FACES: Michaella Krajicek & Timea Bacsinszky
...time to recognize the two other 15-year olds who grabbed titles the same week that Nicole Vaidisova did so in Vancouver. Krajicek won a challenger event in Koksijde, her second of 2004; while Switzerland's Bacsinszky won her second crown of the season at Martina Franca (and no, that's not the name of the latest Swiss Miss).
DOWN: Venus Williams & Anastasia Myskina
...Venus was 11-0 in Olympic singles/doubles play before Athens, but just 2-2 in Greece. Her 3rd Round Olympic exit now rests all-too-comfortably right beside her 3rd Round exit in Oz and 2nd Round ouster at Wimbledon this year. To think, two or three years ago everyone was worried that the Williams sisters' dominance would mean no one else would have a shot at anything. As for Myskina... well, let's first make it clear that Backspin loves the Czarina. But a choke is a choke, and Myskina just proved that gold -- or at least potential Gold -- CAN rust... in about 24 hours. One game from playing the Gold Medal Match, serving at 5-1 (and 5-3) in the SF against JHH, the Russian ended up without a medal of any color. But that haunting memory of her "Golden Choke" will linger. She wasn't over it in time for her Bronze Match against Molik, but will she finally be come the U.S. Open? Well, the fight for #1 was fun while it lasted.

1. Athens SF - JHH d. Myskina
JHH blew 4-2 and 5-3 leads in the 2nd set, but Myskina trumped her by giving away a 5-1 & serving advantage in the 3rd. Neither woman would get a medal for the quality of play in the UE-strewn final set, but in a test of wills it's generally smart to put the money on
2. Athens F - JHH d. Mauresmo
You can't give Mauresmo grief this time for losing a big match (though maybe "Scream" she should be looked at for any involvement in that Eduard Munch art heist this weekend... good for her she has a pretty good alibi). Facing JHH following one of her patented improbable SF victories is a big little mountain to climb. Maybe Mauresmo could sue Myskina for non-support?
3. Athens 1r - Sugiyama d. Zheng
Zheng served at 6-5 in the 3rd. That won't play well in China. Good thing Li/Sun won the doubles Gold. Maybe Zheng can sneak through with her collapse unnoticed now.
4. Athens 3r - Pierce d. V.Williams
The defending Gold Medalist from Sydney didn't come close to repeating. That's nothing new for Venus since 2000.
5. Athens 1r - Molik d. Dementieva
Punch-Drunk returns?
6. Cincy F - Davenport d. Zvonareva
An afterthought?
7. Athens Bronze Match - Molik d. Myskina
The perfect end to a great week for Molik, and a hugely disappointing one for the Czarina.
8. Athens 2r - Daniilidou d. Maleeva
Eleni the Greek's big comeback moment. She put up a minor fight against Myskina in the 3r, playing to 5-5 in the 1st set before falling in straights.
9. Athens 1r - Raymond d. Kurhajcova
Hey, at least Kurhajcova didn't blow a 6-0/5-0 lead to Raymond this time.
10. Athens Doubles 1r - Suarez/Tarabini d. Medina Garrigues/Sanchez Vicario
Four-time Olympic medalist ASV came back for Athens, but maybe her results before this will mean she'll move into the "Champion Emeritus" role next season that's currently inhabited by Martina Navratilova (who, by the way, advanced to the QF in Athens w/ Raymond).

All for now.

NEXT: Beijing Preview... "The Power of 8?"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog for years. Just lazy to sign in and leave a comment..

This post reminded me of Justine. I was thinking that she could have won a medal with that kind of draw, Ivanovic's.

Also, possibly a semis at Wimbledon..

Mon Aug 25, 11:15:00 AM EDT  

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