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Steve Flink: Henin the Great

11/6/2007 1:17:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Some day, years from now, when she has time to reflect on a career marked by many more triumphs than failures, and she allows herself to fully celebrate what she achieved and how much dedication she gave to her craft, Justine Henin will point to 2007 as her most rewarding season ever. When the first Grand Slam event was played back in January at the Australian Open, Henin was far away from the proceedings, understandably mired in despondency while she went through a painful divorce. Having reached all four Grand Slam tournament finals in 2006, Henin surely hated missing the first major of 2007, but, given her plight, she had no alternative. Critics wondered whether or not Henin could put that bruising chapter in her life behind her and perform again with her old unbridled intensity and the same unwavering will to win.

What happened from that point forward is nothing short of astounding. Henin swept through the season on an absolute mission, capturing her fourth French Open championship, recording a second U.S. Open title run, winning 63 of 67 matches while securing ten of the 14 tournaments she played. On top of that, after suffering an inexplicable semifinal loss to Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon, Henin did not lose another match across the rest of the year, realizing a feat of the highest order. Not since Steffi Graf in 1989 had a woman gone unbeaten in singles over the second half of the year. Henin was victorious in her last five tournaments of 2007, collecting 25 match victories in a row. Moreover, she becomes the first female since Martina Hingis in 1997 to win at least ten tournament singles titles in a single year.

The indefatigable Belgian underlined her supremacy as a match player and competitor of rare stock by upending a revitalized Maria Sharapova 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 in the final of the Sony Ericsson Championships at Madrid, the season-ending event reserved only for the top eight players in the women's game. Sharapova, hindered most of the year by a nagging shoulder problem which severely diminished the effectiveness and power of her serve, performed with growing assurance all week long in Madrid. She rediscovered the potent first serve, which ignited the rest of her big hitting game and took her to her highest level of the season. Suddenly, Sharapova was releasing those thundering backhand returns off second serves for outright winners as once was her custom.

Sharapova was highly impressive in ousting Daniela Hantuchova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Ana Ivanovic in round robin play. Her performance against Ivanovic was superb as she reversed the result of a semifinal meeting with the Serbian at Roland Garros, winning handily in straight sets this time around. In the semifinals, Sharapova crushed Anna Chakvetadze to set up her final round appointment with Henin, who did not drop a set in four matches on her way to the championship match. Henin knew full well that Sharapova would be dangerous in this setting.

What transpired between these two champions was almost ineffable. They battled sedulously for three hours and 24 minutes, pushing each other to their outermost limits, coming at each other relentlessly, giving an amazing demonstration of playing all out to win without being afraid to lose. Fittingly, in the final of the "fifth major" for the women, in the last event of the season, Henin and Sharapova contested the match of the year. With Henin serving at 5-6 in the opening set, she battled gamely to reach a tie-break in a marathon ten deuce game, saving seven set points before Sharapova finally broke her for the set.

Henin had lost considerable confidence in her serve during that crucial game, double faulting four times as Sharapova stepped up the pace on her returns. A lesser woman might have been jarred by losing an opening set in that fashion, but Henin simply went back to work with typical grit and determination. She served for the second set at 5-4 and reached 30-30 but did not put the clamps down. Sharapova boldly reached 5-5 but Henin refused to fold, breaking again for 6-5, and then holding at love for the set. The two players were locked at 3-3 in the final set before Henin took the next two games at the cost of only one point.

Serving to save the match at 3-5 in that final set, Sharapova fought off four match points before tasting defeat. The beauty of this contest was simple: Henin had persevered in a grueling confrontation to reaffirm her status as the best woman player in the world for the second year in a row and the third time in all. And Sharapova displayed with her performance that she should be back in the thick of things next year, a big threat to add another major title to her collection after a distressing 2007 when she won only one tournament. The women's game was sorely in need of a monumental clash at the end of this season because the four Grand Slam events were largely devoid of great contests. The Henin-Sharapova collision filled that bill, and then some.

The stage is definitely set for this rivalry to flourish in the next few years. Henin now holds a 6-2 head-to-head edge, but they had not met all year until Madrid. The Russian could well be Henin's chief challenger in 2008.

In any event, Henin must be deeply admired for how she conducted herself this year, for the way she bounced back after her divorce to play the game with renewed vigor and professionalism, for the character she exhibited both on and off the court. Her year must be placed high among the best any woman has enjoyed in the Open Era which began in 1968. The way I see it, Steffi Graf had the best year of any woman in the professional era when she won the four majors plus the Olympic Games in 1988 for a "Golden Slam." Margaret Court won the Grand Slam in 1970 so I rank that as the second best year of any modern female competitor.

Undoubtedly, Martina Navratilova's 1984 was an outstanding season, and is No. 3 on my list. She lost early that year to Hana Mandlikova, won a record 74 consecutive matches, and then was beaten by Helena Sukova in the semifinals of the Australian Open at the end of the year. In between, she won three straight majors. Martina's 1983 campaign--- my selection for No. 4--- was almost as good; Navratilova had an 86-1 match record that season, losing only at the French Open to Kathleen Horvath. Graf's 1989 was extraordinary as she swept three of the four majors, closing that campaign on a 38 match victory streak. I rate that at No. 5. Chris Evert won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1976 and was victorious in 12 of 17 tournaments and 75 of 80 matches. Put that one at No. 6. And Hingis in 1997 had a banner year with 12 tournament wins and a 75-5 record, plus triumphs at three of the four majors. I place Hingis in 1997 at No. 7.

I would rank the 2007 Henin campaign at No. 8. Her winning percentage of .940 is the best since Graf hit .977 in 1989. Had she been able to compete in Australia, Henin would probably have finished even higher on the list. I would not be surprised if Henin put very similar results on the board next year. Her capacity to grind out tough matches as well as flow through easier ones is second to none. More than any other woman in the sport, with increasing conviction in the tight corners of tense contests, Henin has established herself as a quietly ferocious player who will not surrender.

But the reasons why Henin should be able to seal at least three or four more Grand Slam singles titles go beyond her mindset. She is now a remarkably complete player. To be sure, her serve can get in her way at times, as was the case in her duel with Sharapova at Madrid. Be that as it may, Henin has the best combination of offense and defense in the women's game, biding her time with the sliced backhand until she can shift gears and unleash her heralded topspin backhand, Moreover, she blocks back forehand returns off big serves to create openings, and then seizes control from the middle of the court with her vastly improved forehand, going either way off that side to finish off points. Most important of all, she has by far the soundest conventional volley in the women's game, and her willingness to approach the net is increasing with each passing year. Her backhand volley, particularly when she goes down the line, is a joy to watch.

Justine Henin is still only 25. She has some great fortnights ahead of her; we will have some exhilarating times in the future watching her perform at the top of her craft. In the mean time, let's pause briefly and reflect on how Henin moved beyond a deep personal setback in 2007 and threw everything she had into making herself the player she should be. At a time when so many negative stories were swirling around tennis and making everyone uneasy this year, there was the calm and resolute Justine Henin to bring out the best in her profession, succeeding by working hard, playing fair, and competing not only with integrity and equanimity, but also with immense class.

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