In 1999, she made a definitive entry into the world of women’s tennis. In her very first professional tournament in the tour strata, she won the entire event coming in as a wild card ranked at 178. The tournament was held in Antwerp, Belgium, and this year the same tournament celebrated its final year as an establishment, only to find Justine Henin emerge victorious yet again.
Her sudden retirement has caught the tennis world on its toes, which sadly is not coming on to its feet just yet. Women’s tennis is evolving. Since the time of dual personality in Steffi Graf and Monica Seles to the days of the Spice Girls (The William sisters, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova) to the current era in which the Eastern Europe and Russian revolution is here to stay. It is evident that women’s tennis has had no dearth of personality. The future signals a Chinese upsurge and perhaps, an Indian upswing in performance. (Tara Iyer is a young talent with tremendous potential to give Sania Mirza good company)
If there is no dearth of potential, then why is women’s tennis on its toes? The answer is the fact that there is no single dominant champion other than Justine Henin who had tremendous seasons in 2006 and 2007.Despite the fact that Maria Sharapova has emerged dominant this year – she has a long way to go to achieve the kind of dominance Justine achieved in the last few seasons.
Her game was impeccably sprinkled with flavours of the old world charm where touch and finesse was routine and power was solely generated by the wonderful gift of timing. This was a testament to the controlled practicing environment she and her life long coach and family, Carlos Rodriguez, had created. She was small by every standard and not muscular, yet she could out muscle every big hitter on the court with her mental fortitude and never-say-die attitude.
She was never the popular champion who radiated the aura of a superstar. She was a professional who just played tennis. People grudgingly gave her admiration and critics raved about her backhand and on court performance. By no stretch of imagination did she epitomize the modern day darling of women’s tennis. Her business on the court was not to model her latest line of tennis outfits straight out of the Paris runway, but to just showcase her pure talent. Period!
In my opinion, she should be remembered for her tenacity and mental resilience. After her first few seasons – she was known to give up too soon. She turned that around with a gallant physical transformation and a mental makeover which brought out the very best in her. Furthermore, her work ethic is something I would rave about. Her reservoir of inner strength, drawn mostly out of a bitter childhood that saw estrangement from her family, was never ending and never sapped her thirst to win. She knew that in order to remain ahead she had to work, which she did..
Her backhand is the biggest and most beautiful stroke in women’s tennis. Not since Steffi Graf’s superb forehand has any stroke generated such mass and critical praise. The short yet graceful swing and the sweet timing of the ball was something only she could have ever achieved. She will be remembered for her wins over the Williams sisters, the big hitters along with the all the Grand Slams that she accumulated. Had she continued playing the game at the professional level, she could have garnered another half a dozen, with ease and dignity. Her repeated wins at all the three Grand Slams (minus Wimbledon) was the height of her power. Sadly, not all champions get to finish their cabinet with every trophy desired.
Let me word an honest confession – I was never her biggest fan but I always made sure I watched her matches. She taught us tennis enthusiasts an incredible amount through her matches. To us, they became minor masterpieces.
Undoubtedly, the world is at loss of words after her retirement. But then again, athletes who leave at the very top are ones who leave a lasting impression. She was an amazing champion who brought glory to her country and love to the sport.
We will miss you Justine…and I end this article quoting her favourite word that she would often use on court:
(It means ‘Come on’ in Flemish, her mother tongue.)
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