By Johnny Ray Huston
When the French Open kicks off this Sunday, there will be a major void in one of its two main events. Earlier this month, three-time women’s defending champion Justine Henin announced her retirement at the age of 25, a move that caught even some of the sport’s main journalistic voices by surprise. Once Henin’s goodbye sunk in, it all began to make a strange sort of sense. Her fantastic game if not personality is respected by all fans — male and female — of the sport, even if she’s remained obscure to casual observers who only recognize the names Federer, Sharapova, and Williams. But because of her short stature and relatively small physique, that same well-respected game was built on a level of effort and commitment that even some of Henin’s greatest opponents might not understand.
Justine Henin reaches
Henin regularly faced and beat players four to nine inches taller and twenty to forty pounds heavier (if not always stronger). A fierce one-handed backhand was her chief weapon, at a time when that shot seems endangered amongst top professionals. In an insightful reaction piece for ESPN, Stephen Tignor of Tennis magazine (a rock journalist cohort at Puncture in the ’90s) wrote about watching Henin in-person at Roland Garros last year. According to Tignor, instead of grunting like so many players or squealing Sharapova-style when she hit the ball, Henin made a different, less audible noise: she gasped. With her fretful, almost panic-stricken looks to coach Carlos Rodriguez between every point of a match, Henin long seemed on the verge of bolting. That’s precisely what she did in the second set of a notorious 2006 Australian Open final against Amelie Mauresmo, when her mid-match forfeit due to stomach pains (which Henin attributed to anti-inflammatories) permanently soured many people’s opinions of her. A few years later, a somewhat more personable Henin’s retirement from tennis while ranked #1 in the world — though amid a string of notable losses — is almost an inverse of that notorious match. She’ll decide when to stop, and how to write her own story.
On the men’s side, Roland Garros is hosting a very different kind of three-time defending champ, the never-say-die 21-year-old Rafael Nadal, who has yet to lose a match at the tournament. Nadal goes into this year’s French Open as the favorite, having won 108 out of his last 110 matches on clay. That status hasn’t been so easy to attain in 2008, though. Nadal entered this spring’s clay season facing perhaps the longest title drought of his young career, as if he’d never quite shook the hangover of his loss to Roger Federer in last year’s painfully-close Wimbledon final. (Since that match, Nadal’s near-peerless record in tournament finals noticeably nosedived.) He’s since won three events, but has had to do so within a compressed time frame that left his feet blistered. His most recent victory at a tournament in Hamburg required him to vanquish the top men’s player of the year so far, Novak Djokovic, in a nearly three-hour three-set marathon that qualifies as one of the best matches of 2008 — then turn around and beat a relatively well-rested Federer the next day.
Nadal vs. Djokovic; May 17, 2008 (highlights)