LPT Week - "Justine Does the Big Apple" (2003 & 2007)
But she did it. We saw it with our own eyes, so it wasn't a dream. Determination, hard work and a desire to live up to the childhood promise she made her dying mother to become a tennis champion all played a part in shaping a unique and lasting legacy. Seven slam singles crowns, Olympic Gold, 43 tour singles titles and 117 weeks at #1 would provide the backbone of an athletic ride that climbed higher than anyone could have ever expected for the girl whose birth on June 1, 1982 in Liège, Belgium would be the first step down a glory-filled path.
Starting today, and for the rest of the week leading up to Henin's enshrinement in Newport on Saturday, I'll offer up one more extended tribute to the player often referred to in this space as the original "Face of Backspin," aka "La Petit Taureau."
But such feelings weren't always a given. At one time, Henin was just another name on a draw sheet. In fact, for a brief time, she wasn't even the most favored Waffle in these parts. Kim Clijsters once stood atop Backspin's Belgian totem pole, while Henin was looked upon with a highly-arched eyebrow after the "wave" incident against Serena Williams in Paris.
But all that would soon change. It would be Henin, and the heart and drive she showed on the court, who would demand it.
It's rare that a complete reversal of an opinion about a player occurs, let alone it being able to be pinpointed as having taken place because of a single accomplishment in a career. Usually, it takes time for such thoughts and feelings to evolve. But, with Henin, I can isolate it down to one specific 24-hour period.
It occurred in New York City in 2003.
Here's my at-the-moment take on what was Henin's first U.S. Open title run, and maybe the single stretch of stubborn, competitive, single-minded brilliance that ultimately would come to define her career.
After that, is a re-post of my 2007 coverage of the second win in New York by an Henin who was more-seasoned, but also more battle-weary and introspective. At just 25, she was less than a year away from her first surprise retirement. But more on that later this week.
[originally posted September 8, 2003]
I think I'm in love with Justine Henin-Hardenne... well, at least the idea of her. But more on that later. I have some unfinished business to take care of.
Today, I finally get to shout it from the rooftop of Tennisrulz Headquarters. Not to be childish and say, "I told you so," but... I told you so.
Okay, can we now finally lay to rest all the gibberish about Kim Clijsters deserving her #1-ranking? To all the mealy-mouthed commentators of the past two weeks who walked with tender feet around the issue as if she had nothing to justify, that judging her on her checkered history of big stage chokes was somehow unfair, let me say this: You were wrong. Just because she's "a nice girl" doesn't, in turn, mean she can't be criticized. The truth is that while her attitude and personality might seem good for the game, her continual tendency to take headers off various grand slam stages is not. And the latter is more important than whether or not the so-called #1 player is willing to squeegee Arthur Ashe Court during a rain delay.
The U.S. Open eliminated any argument about whether or not Clijsters is the "best" player in the game. She's not even close at the moment -- she's not even the best player in Belgium. To hold that title, one must do so from head to toe. For all of Clijsters' talent, she fails that test before it even gets to eye level.
In Flushing Meadows on Saturday, Clijsters once again fumbled her every advantage. In Melbourne, it was a 5-1 3rd set lead. At Wimbledon, it was an injured opponent. In Paris, Clijsters didn't even bother to show up at all.
At the U.S. Open, it was an odd combination of the previous three slams as Justine Henin-Hardenne was coming off a knock-down, drag-out SF against Jennifer Capriati that lasted until 12:30 a.m. and kept her at the USTA Tennis Center until 2:30 in the morning (she was listed as "questionable" to play at all mid-day Saturday). Whether JHH was going to be able to put forth a full effort was debatable... yet she quickly had Clijsters down 0-3 in the 1st set. Clijsters rallied and held two set points at 5-4, but failed to break JHH's serve. Instead, she was broken herself in the next game and ultimately lost the set 5-7. When she was broken to start the 2nd (not once, but twice)... well, the scriptwriter was already typing "FADE OUT" at that point.
So, now the image of Clijsters virtually wetting her pants at Flushing Meadows enters the collective memory. Pardon the bathroom vulgarity, but I'm just calling a spade a spade. To paraphrase baseball legend Yogi Berra, tennis is 90% mental... and the other 50% is physical.
Thus, Henin-Hardenne currently holds two slam titles. Serena Williams holds two, as well. Clijsters holds zero... but she's ranked #1. Can there be any greater example of how fallible the current WTA rankings are?
And I don't want to hear any nonsense about her "consistency," either. In the end, if a player is going to be a presence in the room when the "best player" title is debated, the argument won't settle around how many Tier II's she wins, but how many slams. Right now, Clijsters has exactly as many in her column as her little sister Elke.
So, for one final time this grand slam season, I'll say it: Chew your food, Kim. Chew your food. Just watch Justine. She'll teach you how to do it without "disrespecting" the game.
(Ah, that felt good. Now onto the person who actually deserves to be talked about this week.)
**BUT, MORE IMPORTANTLY... JUSTINE **
As I said way back when (or so it seems), I'm suddenly taken by the mere existence of one Justine Henin-Hardenne. She's like a mummy come to life, a thought-extinct mammal found deep in the heart of... Belgium, of all places?
In the age of power in women's tennis, where big babes rule and Martina Hingis goes from dominant force to immediate afterthought, here's Justine. After thirteen days of fawning over the pounding play of the bubbly, personable, extroverted #1 who's never without a smile... there was Justine.
Yes, Justine Henin-Hardenne. A small woman, also from Belgium, who has taken her good time in coming out of her shell over the years. She of the more classic, varied game. She who hasn't sought the spotlight, but has managed this past summer to get under the skin of the #1 and #3-ranked players in the world with a wave and an injury timeout at a crucial moment... oh, and two important wins that her opponents weren't prepared for. Serena was brought to tears in Paris, while Clijsters charged her with faking an injury and disrespecting the game in San Diego. Showing an appreciated touch of orneriness, JHH called the Clijsters charge "stupid" and stated what many must know to at least be partly true -- that the time-worn circumstance of a past "underdog" suddenly getting the best of the "favorites" has suddenly spawned hints of resentment and jealousy.
JHH deserves her moment. She's put herself right in the middle of the fray for 2003's fight for #1 because of her complete offseason follow-through on a plan to get stronger, hoping to better offset her obvious physical disadvantages against the other top players. The plan has worked wonders. She now packs far more power behind her shots than one would expect from someone her size, and even her serve is an effective weapon that compliments her otherwise clever court tactics (and, of course, that pristine backhand).
Like Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne had her troubles in big matches last year. But, in January, ironically at the same Australian Open where Clijsters' SF collapse against Serena planted seeds of doubt that now won't go away, JHH sowed a garden of belief that exists eight months later.
The first signs that JHH's labors would pay dividends came when she developed leg cramps severe enough to send her to the ground in a prone position during a 4th Round match against Lindsay Davenport. She managed to persevere and win a 9-7 final set. Flashforward to the U.S. Open SF, and JHH wins another three-hour plus, three-set, cramps-plagued marathon. Clearly, the reverberations of Oz are still being felt, as Henin-Hardenne likely wouldn't have believed she had the reserve of fortitude in New York without the experience of January of having proved it to herself... just as Clijsters might not be hounded by her grand slam collapses had she avoided the Serena Choke a round later.
On the bright side, ranking sanity will likely win out. In the 4th Quarter of the season, Clijsters has to defend points from three titles (and one runner-up). Henin-Hardenne won just one singles title last Fall. With Serena maybe out until sometime in October, JHH's time to shine even brighter will soon arrive. The chances that she'll rise to #1 at some point between now and November look good (she currently trails Clijsters by just 330 points).
How things play out at the end of 2003 is an open question, but there can be no legitimate turn of fortune in Clijsters' favor until next January in Australia. That's her next TRUE proving ground. Success anywhere else will be a mirage. Maybe she'll reverse this year's Oz fate in four months time. Maybe not.
For now, though, Justine is the Queen and everyone else is her Court. Kim? For the moment, she's the court jester... happily entertaining the masses, but never leaving a lasting mark. It's a simple fact that what the computer says today is meaningless... we all saw the truth in New York.
*2003 U.S. OPEN MATCHES OF NOTE*
1.SF - JHH def. Capriati
....4-6/7-5/7-6. A classic. The match of the tournament and a sure-fire nominee for Match of the Year. Capriati served for the match at 5-3 in both the 2nd and 3rd sets, and was two points from victory on eleven different occasions. She was even up 4-1 in the 3rd, but the see-saw nature of the 3-hour, 30-minute match that lasted until 12:30 prevents me from calling this a "choke" on Capriati's part. JHH is 15-1 in 3-setters in 2003; while Capriati is 3-11.
2.Final - JHH def. Clijsters
....7-5/6-1. JHH should have been the one bordering on physical exhaustion after her cramp-filled SF match, but it was KC's mental fatigue that proved more daunting. Once Clijsters blew two sets points at 5-4 in the 1st, this result was a fait accompli.
3.4r - Schiavone def. Sugiyama
....over a 4-day match, Sugiyama served for the match in the 2nd set before the rains came. She was up 2-0 in the 3rd before rain came down again, but then lost the final 6 games once play resumed.
4.4r - JHH def. Dinara Safina
....Henin-Hardenne played a perfect match in gaining a 6-0,5-0 lead. So what if the final set ended up being 6-3 -- Justine's true heroics would come later.
5.Girls Final - Kirsten Flipkens def. Michaella Krajicek
HM--Doubles Final - Ruano-Pascual/Suarez def. Kuznetsova/Navratilova
...Martina didn't get another title, but she does now rise to #8 in the doubles rankings and she and Kuznetsova seem assured of a berth in the WTA Championships field.
[originally posted September 8, 2007]
Justine Henin has wiped clean from her mind all the turmoil and petty discrepancies that many have sought to tie to her championship career over the years... or at least she's learned how to make it seem that way over the past eight months or so.
The Belgian's 6-1/6-3 win over Svetlana Kuznetsova in the U.S. Open final on Saturday night put a fitting period at the end of the sentence that says a 2007 season that began with so much heartbreak has turned out to be the most important and revelatory year of her career, and arguably maybe even her entire 25 years.
"When I was a little girl, I was dreaming of winning just one grand slam in my career and I won seven. It's still hard to believe that I did that," Henin said.
For a player who nearly eighteen months ago was the target of much over-the-top criticism following her retirement in the Australian Open final, it's a transformation that is clearly visible to the naked eye.
The collapse of her marriage came first. Then, ironically, a sibling's serious accident offered Henin a lifeline at her time of most need. It was a moment which ultimately opened the door for a reconciliation with the family that she'd shut out of her life nearly a decade earlier due to personal issues and disagreements.
Fast forward five months and Henin was winning her fourth Roland Garros title, with her family in the stands watching for the first time. In Paris, she said she was finally "at peace."
Fast forward another three months. The Henin mood is even lighter, but still focused. She's called an "ultimate professional," and the poison-filled comments floating around after her matches are no longer directed at her, but instead are aimed at her "unlucky" opponents (hello, Serena).
Of all her slam titles, "this one is maybe the most important one," she said. "I had a lot of things to prove to myself -- not to anyone else, just to myself. And I did it."
Just how at ease is she? So much so that she even was able to laugh off Dick Enberg's faux pas of accidentally calling her "Henin-Hardenne" during the post-match trophy presentation. Whoops... but no harm, no foul. A spotless Henin mind is a wonderfully forgiving thing, I suppose.
Against Kuznetsova in the final, the match was a case of a classic story told in familiar fashion. A champion fighting for acceptance, if not from the world at large than of herself and the loved ones she's learning once again to rely upon and cherish. We knew going in that for the fifth straight year the U.S. Open champion was either going to be a Belgian or a Russian... and we sort of had a feeling about WHO it was going to be, too. Kuznetsova just wasn't up to "ruining" this story. Not after Henin had gone through TWO Williams sisters to reach the final match (only the second time anyone's ever done that in a slam), and not after she'd altered so much about her life in order to find the "peace" that had eluded her while becoming a grand slam champion and the world's #1-ranked player in previous seasons.
Right out of the gate, Henin foreshadowed the final chapter of this New York story by breaking Kuznetsova in the first game of the match, just as she'd done against Serena and Venus in the previous two rounds. After facing just one break point in the set, in a game in which she held with a SECOND SERVE ace (I know Justine enjoys jumping out of airplanes, but that's REAL risk-taking), Henin then waltzed to a 6-1 win.
Things were a little different in the 2nd set, as Kuznetsova's opportunities mounted. But Henin didn't budge, and instead pushed back with a break in a seven-deuce game to go up 3-1 after the Russian had once led 40-love in the game. After shrugging off two Contessova break points in the next game, Henin's biggest remaining hurdle was righting herself again to serve out the match after a "fan" yelled out during her service toss. After restarting her serve, she served back-to-back double faults, and threw in another later in the game to give Kuznetsova one final shot to get back into the set on a third break point of the game.
But it wasn't meant to be. It never was. Henin served out the set, and match, at 6-3 to put the finishing touch on what's turned into the "Year of the Taureau" even as so much discussion had centered around the rise of the Serbs and the resurgence of the Sisters leading into the Open.
New York City might not seem to fit Henin to a tee, but it's a pretty good match for La Petit Taureau. She was born there, after all, in that 2003 semifinal match against Jennifer Capriati, nurtured in the final the next day against Kim Clijsters, and given dramatic weight and a hard-won respect the last few days on Ashe as Henin became just the sixth woman in the Open Era to sweep through two slams in a single season without dropping a set in either.
1972 Billie Jean King (RG/US)
1983 Martina Navratilova (Wimb/US)
1988 Steffi Graf (AO/RG)
1997 Martina Hingis (AO/US)
2002 Serena Williams (Wimb/US)
2007 Justine Henin (RG/US)
"I'm just feeling happy. And the fact that I have my family back in my life helps a lot," said Henin. "They give me a lot of support. I'm feeling at peace with myself and that's a very important feeling for me."
At 25, Henin has managed, when you factor in athletic expectations and the harsh realities of the players of the era, to construct the most successful women's tennis career since a teenager named Steffi Graf burst onto the scene in the mid-1980's.
Not the biggest. Not the strongest. Not the most popular, nor the most feared. But the best female tennis player in the world has a name... and it's "Justine Henin."
"It's more than a dream."
Indeed. And that's something that Justine won't be wiping from her mind anytime soon.
All for now.