Wednesday, July 13, 2016

LPT Week- "A Belgian in Paris" (2003-07)

During her Hall of Fame career, Justine Henin won 527 matches, 43 tour-level singles events, seven grand slams, two WTA Championships crowns, an Olympic Gold medal and a Fed Cup championship. She spent over 100 weeks at the top of the rankings, had seven consecutive Top 10 seasons and was the year-ending #1 three times. But the lasting image in the mind's eye of her career is not only the sight of her beautiful one-handed backhand, but the memory of her executing that signature shot in Paris on the terre battue, the surface upon which the foundation of the Belgian's tennis legacy was constructed.

A junior champ there in 1997, Henin's special relationship with Roland Garros never relented throughout her career. She won her maiden slam title there, and went on to be crowned champion three more times. During the five-year span of her dominant RG reign, she was the top player in the women's game. As it should have been. For it was in Paris, as a 10-year old girl watching the 1992 women's final from the stands along with her dying mother, that Henin made the promise that she'd one day be a champion on that very same red clay. The same clay on which Monica Seles was busy winning her third straight Roland Garros title that afternoon.

Eleven years later, Henin was the one holding the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Henin's own three consecutive championships in Paris from 2005-07 have only been matched in the Open era by the three-peat run by Seles from 1990-92. In fact, from 2003-07, Henin's only loss during her four-titles-in-five-years stretch at RG came against Tathiana Garbin in 2004 when the Belgian was suffering through the weakness associated with her cytomegalovirus virus.

As her Hall of Fame enshrinement beckons this weekend, Henin's story is set to come full circle. On the day that she joins their ranks, she will be in the presence of tennis royalty, including Seles, who will serve as her personal presenter. Surely, the spirit of the mother who inspired it all will once more be by Henin's side, as well. Silent, but loud in her memory.

It'd only be right.

The following is what I said on the occasion of Henin winning all four of her RG titles. The first of which, in 2003, came before her U.S. Open run a few months later would force an evolution of thought in this space, as well as some choice opinions -- since worked through and a truce reached, but with the history always and forever on the record -- about Justine's fellow Belgian counterpart at the time. But more on that dynamic in tomorrow's LPT Week installment.

As for Justine and Paris...

"2003 Clay Court Awards"
[originally posted June 9, 2003]

The Poor Sport (put your hand down, Justine) vs. The Choker (chew your food and then swallow, Kim). Still think this was good and better for the sport than another Williams Family Invitational?

Okay, maybe it was in the long run, but couldn't we have been treated to something at least resembling an actual match? A 6-0 1st set? Nice of you to show up, Miss Clijsters. Oh, that's right... you didn't.

Of course, at least you were gracious about it. It's hard to imagine the losing Waffle being as poor a sport as the winning one was in the semifinal. Miss Kim, no matter the "Walls of Jericho" persona you've taken on this season, you wouldn't raise your hand in the middle of your opponent's serve and then refuse to admit it as a crowd already on your side turned world #1 Serena Williams into an unwitting villain. Sure, Henin-Hardenne's win means there might be a race for the #1 ranking in 2003, after all, as the crown could shift to one of the Belgians in September if Serena doesn't repeat her Wimbledon championship. But that doesn't erase the needlessly bad aftertaste that Henin left behind in Paris.

And speaking of you-know-who. Serena... get used to it. You're the #1 player in the world, the "big bad" conqueror who's made the tour your stomping ground for a year now, and the woman crushing everyone else's dreams has to expect to be booed at some point. As good as you are, it can get a little tired. Who didn't like Steffi Graf in the post-Gunther Parche Era, but who also didn't smile a little when she lost simply because it meant that EVERY slam trophy wasn't going to go in her trophy case. People like a winner, but not always the SAME winner every time. As long as you're on top, everyone will either secretly wish for you to lose... or do just what the RG crowd did. On the other hand, showing you're not quite as witheringly oblivious to the opinion of the rest of world in the post-match press conference might ironically be the first step toward fewer people rooting against you down the road. But only after you're no longer #1, of course.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Justine Henin-Hardenne
...JHH staked her claim for a shot at #1 by the end of year, claiming the big trophy at RG to go along with the Junior Girls one she won in Paris in 1997. Don't look now, but the world's best claycourter has 4 titles in 2003 (more than anyone) -- including 2 Tier I's and now her first slam, is 2-0 vs. #1 Serena, has two wins over #2 Clijsters and has now moved past Venus for #3 in the world.



RISER: Vera Zvonareva
...after taking a set off Serena in Paris last year, she knocked off Venus to reach the QF this year. She's now ranked in the Top 20 for the first time in her career, and might just be the #1 Russian by the end of the year.

SURPRISE: Nadia Petrova
...Petrova continued to show the game, poise and confidence of a Top 10er en route to her surprise SF run, coming within a net cord of taking the 1st set there against Clijsters. Her ranking now jumps from #76 to #29, and if she can just stay healthy...

VETERAN: Ai Sugiyama
...winning the doubles title with Clijsters moved the 27-year old, former-doubles #1 back up the #3. Oh, and she's now at a career-best #12 in singles, too.

FRESH FACE: Anna-Lena Groenefeld
...the 18-year old German knocked off #1-seeded Vera Douchevina to claim the Girls singles title.

DOWN: The Williams Sisters
...after four straight meetings in slam finals, #5 wasn't in the cards. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), Venus didn't seem incredibly bothered by her 4th Round loss to Zvonareva (of course, she took pictures of Serena after last year's final); while Serena cried after her loss. Could that be the difference between being #1 and the new #4?

1.SF--Henin-Hardenne d. S.Williams
...Serena was serving up 4-2 when the turn began, both in the stands and on the court (or was it in Serena's head?).
2.Final--Henin-Hardenne d. Clijsters
....JHH is now 4-0 in finals in 2003 (6-1 in her last 7 appearances). Clijsters has exited the last two slams by losing a 5-1 3rd set lead in Australia and putting up a 0-6 1st set in Paris. Seven different women have won RG in the last seven years.
3.QF--S.Williams def. Mauresmo
....6-1,6-2. This was the hell-to-pay match for the Mauresmo win in Rome.
4.The Other Russian
....Nadia Petrova won 3-setters over both Capriati (4th) and Zvonareva (QF), but it was a nasty little net cord on set point that finally punctured her balloon of confidence in the SF against Clijsters.
5.4th Rd.--Zvonareva def. V.Williams least Venus didn't take pictures of Vera after her Paris exit this year.

==(with record in WTA main draws)==
1.Justine Henin-Hardenne (20-1)
2.Kim Clijsters (15-2)
3.Amelie Mauresmo (15-2)
4.Magui Serna (18-5)
5.Vera Zvonareva (19-5)
6.Elena Dementieva (9-5)
7.Serena Williams (12-3)
8.Anastasia Myskina (9-5)
9.Nadia Petrova (9-4)
10.Chanda Rubin (8-3)

Charleston Final - Henin-Hardenne def. S.Williams set the tone for the clay spring for both of them

Berlin Final - Clijsters loses to Henin-Hardenne
...The German Choke. KC blows three match points, and allows JHH to continue her roll to Paris.

1.Serena is Mortal: She Semi-Chokes, She Cries... and she loses
2.Henin-Hardenne (not Kim C. Clijsters -- the "C" stands for "Choke") is the best least on clay
3.Dementieva finally Punch(es) her way to a title, then falls into a Drunk(en) stupor on the way to Paris
4."Charlie's Angels: Low Throttle" -- Hantuchova and Dokic hit roadblocks
5.Mauresmo: Close But No Croissant... again
6.The Red (Clay) Menaces: Zvonareva and Petrova arrive
7.American Splendor = Ashley Harkleroad
8.The Long Walk Home: Monica Seles stares her tennis mortality in the face
9.When In Rome: Navratilova wins again at 46
10.Introducing... Julia Schruff & Karolina Sprem
HM--The Fool on the Hill: Damir Dokic says his daughter "doesn't exist"

"Long Live the Queen"
[originally posted June 6, 2005]

The 2005 clay court season came to a fitting close on Saturday, the only way it really could -- and should -- have... with Justine Henin-Hardenne the last woman standing.

In Roland Garros' final women's singles match, the perfect ending to JHH's comeback surge had been on the line in front of mostly-partisan fans sitting on the edge of every seat, just waiting for a reason to will one of their own (albeit by way of a few North American channels) to victory. All that was necessary for Henin-Hardenne to face off against a throng of furious French backers was an inkling that Mary Pierce was up to following up her 2000 RG title with a belated encore.

But Pierce's moment never came in a 6-1/6-1 defeat... while JHH's looks to have only just arrived, with perfect punctuality, for a spectacular encore of its own.

Henin-Hardenne's second French Open crown, the fourth slam title of her career, may have "only" raised her to #7 in the WTA rankings, but it's put her in the catbird seat of women's tennis all over again. And what's to be made of the land she surveys? Well, it's vast and saturated with talent... but, save a certain Russian celestial occurrence dressed in a tennis dress, it's matter-of-factly conquerable. Nearly all potential rivals have a characteristic that precludes them from waging a long-term, complete and total battle with the Queen, who's just a Wimbledon title away from becoming the sixth player in the last 30 years -- male or female -- to claim at least one title at all four grand slams.

Serena Williams is one of those five other players, but the Williams Sisters' dynasty is over. These days, between Venus' mounting excuse-making, we're only treated to an occasional reminder of "what used to be" from Serena, at least whenever her body isn't breaking down or she's not too busy to bother with the sport that's given her so many options to pursue off the court. Battling Henin-Hardenne on a weekly basis hardly seems possible in 2005 and beyond.

If not a Williams, who else could challenge an in-form and healthy JHH? Late-in-career Lindsay Davenport's presence is only a short-term one at this point, though her display of will in Paris could speak well for her ability to add that one final slam title to her resume at either SW19 or Flushing Meadows before she leaves the court for good. Fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters, despite her own great return to form, is still more than a shade behind JHH in the "winning edge" department (with another example coming against Davenport at Roland Garros last week), and she still must contend with the ongoing battle with her ever-more-fragile body, as well.

Most of the Horde, too, have potentially fatal flaws that will likely prevent from being a "true challenger." From Elena Dementieva's serve to Vera Zvonareva's emotions, and from Anastasia Myskina's many moods to Svetlana Kuznetsova's questionable killer instinct, laid bare by JHH's own withering assessment that the Contessova was "afraid to win" their 4th Round match up at Roland Garros (in which Kuznetsova held two match points), it's always going to be something.

Unless she's struck down again by her toughest opponent to date -- the virus -- or another player emerges from the shadows of the tour (AnaIvo, anyone?), JHH appears poised to reclaim what once was hers... and maybe not even a Supernova can stop her.

Or can she?

In JHH's twenty-eight matches in 2005, only Maria Sharapova has managed to experience a victorious handshake at the net. That match was on a hard court, which will soon become the surface of choice in the season's 3rd Quarter. On clay, Henin-Hardenne dominated Sharapova twice in recent weeks (winning 4 & 2 in the QF of Roland Garros), but the Russian's favored grass could be where their next battleground takes place. The Queen already has managed to block Sharapova from claiming Davenport's #1 ranking in recent weeks... could she go to England next month and literally steal the honor for herself, pulling the rug out from under the teenager's feet before the Supernova can "make every shot a power shot?" Or will she get her revenge at SW19, or maybe Arthur Ashe Stadium?

Serena vs. the Supernova was the "dream" finale of last year's Wimbledon. How about a Queen/Supernova All-England Club battle twelve months later to determine the true order of things at the top of women's tennis? One can only hope.

"Restoring Order"
[originally posted June 10, 2006]

All hail "The Pigeon Queen."

Justine Henin-Hardenne is 22-1 in her last twenty-three matches at Roland Garros, and defended her title on Saturday to become champion for the third time in the past four years. Accomplishments to behold, for sure... but maybe not as much as being the sole survivor -- or is it the focal point? -- of the pusillanimous plan that the pigeons of Paris hatched from their safe havens above the fray two weeks ago.

Only two of the fine-feathered friends of Justine that were in on the plot had the courage to venture onto the court during the tournament, but their appearance was enough to start the Sharapova over Washington, Safina over Sharapova, Kuznetsova over Safina... and then Henin-Hardenne over Kuznetsova chain reaction that resulted in today's final.

On Friday's "Late Show with David Letterman," it was said that "scientists have been studying pigeons, and say "they're definitely up to something." The statement was meant to be a joke, but it was more riddled with truth than anyone could have ever imagined. Agree or disagree with the pigeons' passive-aggressive tactics, but you've got to admire them for their devious genius. It looks like they got the result they wanted.

(Hmmm... maybe I've been too hard on the little guys. I mean, if they like Justine they can't be ALL bad, right?)

This final act in the plan was the least dramatic of the string of lost opportunities for one player that were turned into gold by another, though. There were no huge leads blown this time around. But the final match wasn't a breeze for JHH like her '03 and '05 championship matches against Kim Clijsters and Mary Pierce, either. Svetlana Kuznetsova, while not as harshly single-minded in pursuit of the title as, say, Henin-Hardenne at the 2003 U.S. Open, at least forced the Belgian to win the match rather than ceremonially handing over the title to her. The score was 6-4/6-4 and, in the end, JHH only led 69-64 in total points.

Though one wonders what might have happened had the Russian walked through the one door that opened for her in the opening stages of the 2nd set. If Kuznetsova had maintained her slight advantage, and pushed a tiring Henin-Hardenne into a 3rd set she might have actually won this title. Winning in straight sets, even though they were close ones, didn't totally break JHH's trend for the majority of a season where she's either won easily (and quickly) or teetered on the edge and failed to pull out one of those long, three-setters that used to be her hallmark. Kuznetsova could have made her prove she could still win a match like that, but she didn't come up with the goods when it was still possible to force Henin-Hardenne into a corner from which she would have to fight out. Much like with Amelie Mauresmo's three uncompleted matches in Melbourne, JHH took this title without ever having to stare down the evil eye of defeat that lurks on the outer edges of a long day.

But, as with the Australian Open, they'll be no asterisk here. No tarnished trophy, either. This slam crown will line up rather nicely alongside her other four, not to mention tie her with Martina Hingis and Venus Williams on the career majors list.

So, after a string of slams that saw Venus emerge from a few years of shadows at Wimbledon, then Clijsters and Mauresmo outrun their reputations to win their first titles, this tournament proved something that we (including myself) should never have questioned. Justine Henin-Hardenne still rules Roland Garros, as she should. Order has been restored.

JHH herself stated after the match that all the controversy of January should now be history, and that the time to more forward has arrived. Bygones are bygone... as if there was ever any doubt that that SHOULD be the case.

Allez Justine. All hail the Pigeon Queen!

Yeah, I know... that one was a little strange. I must have been a bit stir crazy that week... or maybe the pigeons were the first early-warning sign of The Radwanskian Apocalypse still to come, but we just didn't realize it yet?

"The Pursuit of Happiness"
[originally posted June 9, 2007]

Maybe nice isn't so bad.

Of course, maybe Ana Ivanovic wouldn't agree about Justine Henin being such a welcoming host on her "home" court on Saturday in Paris. Not after the Belgian dispatched the Serbian teenager from the Roland Garros women's singles final 6-1/6-2 in barely an hour to become the first woman to win the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen three straight years since Monica Seles did so in 1992.

But, then again, AnaIvo played a big part in the decided lack of drama in the match. After breaking Henin to begin the match, then holding a 40-love lead on her own serve, the youngest member of the Serbian Fantastovics finally realized where she was -- in her first grand slam final, playing against the two-time defending champion in her tenth -- and allowed the nerves that she'd controlled for two weeks get the best of her. Once Henin scrambled to break back, on a net cord, it was only a matter of how long the match was going to last.

Ivanovic didn't hold her own serve until the tenth game of the match, which was but a brief respite from what has been the norm for Henin for most of the last five years at Roland Garros... a period of dominance that in many ways had its foundation set in place when a 10-year old Henin's mother accompanied her to Chatrier Court to watch Seles win that third straight title fifteen years ago. Three years later, Henin's mother died. Two years after that, 15-year old Justine won the junior title at Roland Garros. Six years later, she won her first grand slam title on the same court. And today she completed the cycle by matching Seles' feat of a three-peat by defeating a player born in Serbia... just like Seles.

It's almost as if this is how things were meant to be.

Henin's 2003-07 run in Paris has included four titles and a 29-1 record, with the only loss coming in the 2nd Round against Tathiana Garbin in 2004 when she was afflicted with the cytomegalovirus that has proved to be her biggest obstacle since she made her successful climb to the top of women's tennis... well, that and the long-held perception that she was long on ambition but short of the human elements that make champions "cherished." Even while winning, Henin's had to shrug off her lack of acceptance at the expense of her single-minded, sometimes-selfish forward march. Her remaining family members weren't an exception, as they couldn't or wouldn't understand the lengths she was willing to go to achieve her goals. Thus, for seven years, Henin found it easier to push her father, sister and two brothers away rather than find a way to compromise. It simply wasn't important enough.

Things have changed.

Oh, maybe she's not necessarily ready to transform herself into "Nice Justine" since the crash of her marriage in January, but Henin HAS reconnected with her father and siblings (the three were in the stands today to see her victory). At the very least, it's a sign that, at least off the court, Henin is seeking to find the peace and happiness that has often eluded her since her mother's death when the would-be Queen Justine was barely a teenager.

You could see all the emotions and accomplishments meet in the final, coming to fruition when Henin put away match point, threw up her racket and collapsed, head in hands, against the net.

In many ways, Henin's personal social foibles have managed to prevent her from being a sympathetic figure over the years, despite her charitable off-court work, and that she comes to Paris every year with the desire to win the title for the mother she lost and who's absence she is obviously still affected by.

Henin is still the best female claycourter in the world. She's still #1, and has reached the final of the last five grand slams in which she's participated. Could her small moves to seek happiness off the court, seemingly compatible with her on-court success if the extension of her Roland Garros reign is any indication, make this sixth career slam crown both a new beginning, as well as more of the same? Could this be the start of a point in her career after which she's not taken for granted, or discussed more for what she's NOT rather than what she IS? With the shadow of that other "nicer," but fewer-slam winning, Belgian now removed by marriage and retirement, could the "black-hatted" Henin the Survivor become Henin the Cherished?

Yeah, maybe that's asking for too much, huh?

When you think about it, though, Henin's literally been wearing a WHITE hat for most of her career... so maybe the symbolic evidence that she was never really that "bad" was there all along. She just had to find a way to get more people to realize it by being willing to budge -- just a little -- from her set-in-stone path. So far, so good.

Nice, Justine.

Next up: "The Justine & Kim Show" (2004-12)

All for now.


Blogger colt13 said...

Really liking this, especially since the 2003-2006 stuff is before I started coming here.

Did see the enjoyable Yastremska/Potapova match and think both have a big future. Obviously, getting in the first serves will help, but they have time. Yastremska is going to have the match on her racket, while Potapova's will be on her opponents.

About the comparisons. None really fit, but Yastremska has Hantuchova's body with Henri Leconte's game. Potapova is a cross between Wozniacki's game and Brengle's attitude.

Wed Jul 13, 10:32:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yeah, I've actually enjoyed reading them myself (it's been a while for some), and now realize how much I've missed chronicling the whole LPT career arc. Makes me crave even more a second half of the Vika '16 renaissance on hard courts this summer, because some of the battling-against-outside-forces angle has always played into her story, as well.

I think Hantuchova might have been even skinnier, but Yastremska is surely wirey. ;)

I think the Yastremska/Vika thing is mostly about the mannerisms (the thigh slaps, agitated-and-almost-hyper-let's-get-this-point-going-eagerness when returning serve, etc.) on my part. Need to see her play more, but I did enjoy getting an early opportunity.

Whew-boy, yeah, they need to work on their serves now, because the rest is something to build on. And I was impressed by the way Potapova came back even more determined after all the MP overturns. I'm not sure some of the WTA-level players would have handled all that nearly as well.

Wed Jul 13, 11:02:00 AM EDT  

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