Continuing with our series on the greatest tennis players of all time, here’s No. 19 on our list.
No. 19 – Justine Henin
The Williams sisters were taking the tennis world by storm. Jennifer Capriati was making a successful comeback. Mary Pierce was an established force. The tall and muscular Davenport was an ever-present danger. The women’s game was changing. Power was the name of the game.
In came a young woman, a small girl even; all of 5 feet 6 inches, weighing somewhere in the region of fifty kilograms. In she came with her neatly creased skirt and smart tee shirt; with an ever-present cap and a pony tail hanging out from the back of it; with a fantastic forehand and an even more beautiful backhand. In came Justine Henin. And with her came grace back into the game.
In the era of the grunts and groans, here was someone who was, simply, beautiful to watch. The neat, clean and crisp strokes, the fantastic movement on the court, the classic approach shot and the solid volleying – a perfect player. When others seemed to move, she seemed to glide. Watching her was an absolute pleasure and often she would leave you with the familiar, ‘how did she do that?’ expression.
When tennis costumes – yes that is what I call them – were becoming as important as the tennis racquet itself, Henin stood quite alone. The fashion statements and outlandish outfits were not for her. Always prim and perfect, she carried herself on court with consummate ease. Ever the professional, I don’t think I’ve seen her throw a fit or a tantrum on court. With 3 of the 4 grand slams under her belt and having reached the final of Wimbledon twice, one can safely say that she is indeed one of the all-time greats.
The most astonishing part of Henin’s game was her versatility. She was one of those few players who were as comfortable playing from the back as she was at the net. Her backhand was a thing of beauty. The brilliance of the stroke was that with just about the same backswing she could hit the ball flat or with a top-spin loop. Her slice was an effective weapon that she used on many an occasion to come into the net and finish off the point. In spite of the small frame, her serve packed quite a punch.
The best thing about watching Henin play was to just observe. Observe everything. There was an economy of movement. She hardly overran a ball. She hardly ever seemed to overstretch. Yet, she always seemed to be there. Just in time. She used the court in the most judicious manner, all the while working with a strategy in the back of her mind. She knew that she was not the most powerful player on the tour, but she actually used this to her advantage.
Henin played a cerebral game with a clever mix of slices, top-spin shots and forehands while mixing it up at the net from time to time. She seemed to know exactly where she wanted to put the ball and almost invariably, she did put it there. It isn’t enough if you merely know what to do; you have to go out there and actually do it too. Henin planned, but more importantly, had the game to execute her plans to perfection.
‘Henin’s offense is just phenomenal … it’s sort of like we’ve got ‘the female Federer’, or maybe the guys have ‘the male Justine Henin’, because she is just head and shoulders above everyone else right now,’ said Martina Navratilova of Henin. Such was the poise and grace of Henin.
The wikipedia page on Henin has a section called Records. The second row reads thus:
Grand Slam: French Open
Years: 2006, 07
Records accomplished: Won the French open twice without losing a set.
The final column is titled ‘Player tied’, which lists the other players who also hold the same record.
The entry under that column in the second row probably describes Henin best.
And now, the obligatory video clip. This one may be a little on the cheesy side (teen pop as the background score? really?), but I I’ve never been so completely blown away by a highlights reel of any player, not even of Roger Federer, as I was by this one. The backhand at the 2.01 mark is specially jaw-dropping. Take a look:
Here are the other players who have made it so far:
No. 20 – Venus Williams
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: