BACKSPIN TIME CAPSULE: 2004 Athens Olympics
(seventeenth in a series)
There have been many great Olympic tennis performances, but maybe none was more emblematic of an entire career than the Gold Medal run of a certain diminutive Belgian in Athens in 2004.
From Steffi Graf's "Golden Slam" to Nicolas Massu's shocking run, the return of tennis as an Olympic medal sport has produced some truly great moments, but Justine Henin-Hardenne's path -- up to, through, and after the Athens Games -- was a tale of unexpected greatness. On the surface, in the moment, it might not have appeared to be the case, though. After all, the Belgian was already the #1-ranked player in the world. She'd opened the '04 season by winning sixteen straight matches. Only a few months before heading to Greece, she'd arrived in Paris as the reigning title-holder at three of the four grand slams.
But signs of trouble began to appear in the spring. That's when Henin had her first occasion to pull out of events due some sort of viral illness. Although she'd only played one clay event (and none on red clay) leading up to Roland Garros and was hardly match-ready, Henin decided to attempt to defend her '03 Roland Garros crown. She wasn't up to. A shadow of her "normal" self, she was ousted in the 2nd Round by Tathiana Garbin, the earliest loss ever by a #1 seeded woman in Paris. As the Olympics rolled around in mid-August, Henin's illness had kept her out since May.
Henin's mettle had already been shown on a big stage, as her back-to-back night marathon/daytime domination wins in the semis (vs. Jennifer Capriati) and final (vs. Kim Clijsters) at the U.S. Open the previous season has set a remarkable bar for her career when it came to overcoming seeming physical limitations to triumph in the face of adversity. Of course, she'd been doing such things ever since she picked up a racket, then entered into a world of professional tennis packed with powerful players who usually stood at least half a foot taller than her. But, unlike most other players her size, Henin had eschewed the sort of crafty style of play often used to overcome such disadvantages. Instead, she managed to play a head-first, physical, hard-hitting brand of tennis, which combined with her on-court quickness and tremendous fighting spirit (an unapologetic, win-at-all-costs trait which sometimes caused her to flirt with -- and occasionally cross over -- into "unsportswomanlike" behavior during matches) to produce a player who was THE dominant player on tour from 2003-07.
At the time, Henin's Gold-winning turn, while sometimes-astounding solely in it's on-court circumstances (especially her "escape" in the SF), was viewed as a laudable accomplishment by the game's #1 player. It was only later, though, as we fully learned of the cytomegalovirus that had infected her throughout most of '04, that the breadth of her achievement grew wings. Ultimately, the virus would keep her off tour for all but one more event (the U.S. Open) the rest of the season.
Rightly so, 2004 is mostly remembered as the season that the Russian Revolution took hold of the WTA. Three Hordettes won slams, as well as the season-ending Tour Championships, that year. Team Russia claimed its first Fed Cup crown, too. But, in retrospect, it was Henin-Hardenne's run in Athens that was the best performance, mostly due to all the unseen obstacles that were overcome to pull it off. In fact, in a career filled with many pockets of extraordinary achievement, Henin's time in Athens -- her ONLY Olympic appearance -- might be her most remarkable moment.
August 23, 2004 - "Athena Would Be Proud"
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, after Kim Clijsters in NYC -- with her usual sterling effort.
Henin-Hardenne's absence allowed the Group of Three, her 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 surgically-repaired 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.
Here's how I summed up Week 33 back in 2004.
[Note: You'll immediately find out here just how long I've been touting a particular career accomplishment ONLY -- so far -- pulled off by Steffi Graf & Andre Agassi... though, back then, pre-Rafa '08 Gold, I didn't need to include anything about winning a year-end tour championship]
*WEEK 33 CHAMPIONS*
ATHENS, GREECE (Olympics-HO)
SINGLES GOLD: Justine Henin-Hardenne/BEL d. Amelie Mauresmo/FRA 6-3/6-3
DOUBLES GOLD: T.Li/T.Sun (CHN) d. Martinez/Ruano-Pascual (ESP)
BRONZE: (S) Alicia Molik/AUS, (D) Suarez/Tarabini (ARG)
CINCINNATI, OH USA (III-HO)
S: Lindsay Davenport/USA d. Vera Zvonareva/RUS 6-3/6-2
D: Craybas/Weingartner (USA/GER) d. Gagliardi/Groenefeld (SUI/GER)
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Justine Henin-Hardenne/BEL
...at 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/AUS
...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 (CHN/CHN)
...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/USA & Mary Pierce/FRA
...Davenport got the headlines with her sixth title of 2004 in Cincinnati, and fourth in her last four events (she on a 17-match winning streak, the longest on tour this season), but Pierce's Olympic wins over Petrova and Venus could mean she'll be a major presence at Flushing Meadow next week, as well.
FRESH FACES: Michaela Krajicek/NED & Timea Bacsinszky/SUI
...belatedly, it's 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/USA & Anastasia Myskina/RUS
...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
...7-5/5-7/8-6. JHH blew 4-2 and 5-3 leads in the 2nd set, but Myskina trumped her by giving away a 5-1 & serving-for-the-Gold Match advantage (twice) 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 Henin-Hardenne. JHH made her immediate return after a long absence from the tour (due to a nagging viral infection) a staggeringly effective one.
2. Athens F - JHH d. Mauresmo
...6-3/6-3. You can't give Mauresmo grief this time for losing a big match (though maybe "Scream" 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
...4-6/6-3/8-6. 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
...6-4/6-4. 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
...4-6/6-0/6-3. "Punch-Drunk" returns?
6. Cincy F - Davenport d. Zvonareva
...6-3/6-2. An afterthought?
7. Athens Bronze Match - Molik d. Myskina
...6-3/6-4. The perfect end to a great week for Molik, and a hugely disappointing one for the Czarina, who went home with no medal at all.
8. Athens 2r - Daniilidou d. Maleeva
...2-6/6-4/6-4. Eleni the Greek's big comeback moment. She put up a minor fight against Myskina in the 3rd Round, playing to 5-5 in the 1st set before falling in straights.
9. Athens 1r - Raymond d. Kurhajcova
...6-4/4-6/6-3. 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
...6-7/7-5/6-2. 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).
Henin-Hardenne's physical issues continued to dog her after Athens. She only played four matches the rest of the '04 season, meaning she'd only played two non-Olympic events since March due to the virus. Naturally, her extended absence cost her her #1 ranking (after the '04 U.S. Open). That December, she suffered a knee injury in training and was forced to miss the first three months of the '05 season. By the time she returned in March, she'd been out for seven months, and played just ten matches outside her Athens run over the course of the previous year.
But the best was yet to come for the La Petit Taureau. In 2005, she put together a 24-match winning streak on the clay, then won the second career RG crown that she'd been unable to claim one year before. It was the first of Henin's three straight titles in Paris. She briefly regained the #1 ranking at the end of the 2006 season, then would sit atop the rankings once again starting in March '07. From that point, she was #1 for 61 straight weeks, only losing the position when she made her surprise (first) retirement announcement two weeks before the start of Roland Garros in '08.
Overall, even while she had already had a spectacular short run of success prior to Athens, Henin won more slams (4 to 3), reached more slam finals (4 to 8) and was ranked #1 (43 to 74) for more weeks AFTER her Gold Medal performance. She came out of retirement and began Act II at the start of the 2010 season, and immediately reached the Australian Open final. But the second phase of her career ended one year later when she retired after a 3rd Round loss in Melbourne, citing her inability to fully recover from an elbow injury she'd suffered during a fall during a match at Wimbledon the previous summer.
Her next stop? The Hall of Fame.
In a decade filled with big wins from the Williams Sisters, and many, many Russians populating the WTA landscape, it was the diminutive Belgian, during the peak years of her career, who was most often the queen. From the moment she won her first grand slam crown in Paris in '03 to the time she claimed her last at the U.S. Open in '07, no woman won more slam titles than Henin. Not Serena. Not Venus. Not Maria. Not Kim. In fact, no woman won even half as many during that 19-slam stretch. That nearly four-year span will go down as the official reign of Queen Justine.
Henin's career produced a multitude of memorable images, but the most heart-warming (for a player who was rarely described as such during her time on the WTA stage) is the shot of her with her Gold Medal, that semi-goofy looking wreath perched atop her head and a semi-goofy, all-joyous smile to go with it on her face, basking in the glory of the moment, having pulled off something that really shouldn't have happened -- and almost didn't -- at all.
**SLAM TITLES, 2003-07**
[from Henin's first slam title, to last - '03 RG - '07 U.S.]
**HENIN... before and after Athens**
43 / 74 - weeks at #1
3 / 4 - grand slam titles
4 / 8 - grand slam finals
**OLYMPIC SINGLES GOLD MEDALISTS**
[slams won before-and-after Gold Medal]
1988 Steffi Graf = 4 / 18
1992 Jennifer Capriati = 0 / 3
1996 Lindsay Davenport = 0 / 3
2000 Venus Williams = 1 / 6
2004 Justine Henin = 3 / 4
2008 Elena Dementieva = 0 / 0
**ALL-TIME WEEKS AT WTA SINGLES #1**
All for now.