Up to very recently, world number 1 Justine Henin had been one of my biggest tennis villianesses. Ironically, my multi-year distaste for Justine started with her refusal to replay a key point against Serena Williams at the 2003 French Open. The crowd turned against Williams as she rightly protested the point that the replay (unseen by the crowd) clearly showed went unfairly to Henin – and Henin knew it! I say this is ironic because Justine’s victim was Serena Williams, another woman’s tennis star I love to dislike.
Justine compounded my distaste for her when she bowed out, seemingly feigning illness, in the 2006 Australian final against Amelie Mauresmo. This was a key win for Mauresmo who had been ridiculed as the then ‘best woman’s tennis player never to have won a slam’. Justine’s early departure thus tainted Mauresmo’s claim to a true grand slam championship win. Happily Mauresmo won the following Wimbledon against Henin, sealing her reputation as a bona fide grand slam winner (and as we now know, preventing Henin from clinching all four slams).
As with politics and life in general, my respect for a person hinges to a large degree on their humility and sense of fair play – and Justine showed none of these qualities in those and other critical moments in her career – nor, until very recently, at almost any time thereafter.
But what she did show consistently, year after year, was a first class sports ethic. No woman’s player was more prepared, more fit, more tenacious than Justine. When Justine took the court I expected her to win. Simply put, with 41 career titles, including 7 grand slam titles (only Wimbledon alluded her), she was one of the best tennis has seen (man or woman) and one of the few women’s tennis stars I admire.
In the last year or so I started to enjoy her tennis and started cheering for her (particularly when she played against Williams or my new-found villainess Maria Sharapova). As she reconciled with her family and divorced her husband, she started to seem human again. And then she retired.
I’m hoping that like my favourites Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport, she’ll return to tennis in a year or two – she’s only 26. For that matter, I’d like to see her fellow country-woman Kim Clijsters return from her stunningly early 2007 retirement at the age of 23.
This is sad news. As one of the few bright stars in women’s tennis, Justine will be missed.