Tuesday, July 12, 2016

LPT Week- "The Olympic Ideal" (2004)

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" and the Russian medal sweep of '08, to the Williams family's Golden history and Andy Murray's triumph in London, 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 first-ever loss by a #1 seeded woman in Paris (it's happened just one additional time since). 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 had 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 what some viewed as "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 its 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 in order to pull it off. In fact, in a career filled with many pockets of extraordinary achievement, Henin's run to Athens Gold -- in her ONLY Olympic appearance -- might be her most remarkable accomplishment.

"Athena Would Be Proud"
[originally posted 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 Meadows 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 '03 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, 17-year old 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 New York City. 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.

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-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
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
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, who went home with no medal at all.
8. Athens 2r - Daniilidou d. Maleeva
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
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 Doubles QF in Athens w/ Raymond).

"Backspin Time Capsule: 2004 Athens Olympics"
[originally posted August 2, 2012]

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.

Ah, memories.

**SLAM TITLES, 2003-07**
[from Henin's first slam title, to last - '03 RG - '07 U.S.]
3...Serena Williams
2...Amelie Mauresmo
2...Maria Sharapova
2...Venus Williams
1...Kim Clijsters
1...Svetlana Kuznetsova
1...Anastasia Myskina

**HENIN... before and after Athens**
43 / 74 - weeks at #1
3 / 4 - grand slam titles
4 / 8 - grand slam finals

[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
2012 Serena Williams = 14 / 8

**ALL-TIME WEEKS AT WTA SINGLES #1 - as of July 11, 2016**
377...Steffi Graf
332...Martina Navratilova
301...Serena Williams*
260...Chris Evert
209...Martina Hingis
178...Monica Seles
98...Lindsay Davenport
67...Caroline Wozniacki*
51...Victoria Azarenka*
39...Amelie Mauresmo

Next up: "A Belgian in Paris" (2003-07)

All for now.


Blogger Leif Mortensen said...

Maybe an idea for an article - WEDDINGS
Saturday we had Dominika Cibulkovas wedding and today follows Ana Ivanovic (church wedding Wednesday) and they look pretty both of them ;)

Tue Jul 12, 10:07:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

I suspect they'll at least get a mention in the Grass Court Awards. ;)

(And there was also Flavia/Fabio, too!)

Tue Jul 12, 11:26:00 AM EDT  

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