Justine Henin was our sport’s Maggie Fitzgerald. Recall the academy award winning film “Million Dollar Baby” Well, Maggie Fitzgerald was the undersized, high-achieving, hard luck protagonist. She was tougher than nails, both inside and outside of the boxing ring. Justine Henin was similarly tough, although she was not a fictitious character made in Hollywood.
There are two stories that I will always remember about the diminutive Belgian. The 2003 US Open was marred by rainy weather. It played havoc with the scheduling, and the tournament was barely able to end on schedule. On Friday night, under the lights of Ashe Stadium, Henin battled the popular Jennifer Capriati for a US Open women’s record three hours and three minutes. The match was fraught with tension, twists, and turns. Capriati desperately wanted to win her national championship and fought like a champion. She came within two points of winning the match an astonishing 11 times. Henin battled from one set down, through cramps, a biased crowd, and her own nerves to prevail in a third set tiebreaker around midnight.
After the match, Jennifer Capriati wailed to the long-time locker room attendant Gloria Beckford: “Why!?!?!?” Even lovely Gloria could not console Capriati. Nearby, Henin was slumped on a table in the trainer’s room, receiving fluids intravenously to treat her severe dehydration.
In the City That Never Sleeps, Henin did not emerge from the locker room until the wee hours of the morning. The buzz around the grounds the next day was that she would not be able to answer the bell for the final against countrywoman Kim Clijsters, who was ranked number 1 at the time. This was a problem on many levels, including the fact that CBS Sports had gambled (and invested heavily) by having the women’s final televised during the evening’s prime time for the second consecutive year. A final round withdrawal would have ruined this goodwill, to say the least. Refunding tickets for a default would have also been financially catastrophic to the tournament.
The next afternoon when Henin arrived at Flushing Meadows with coach Carlos Rodriguez and physical trainer Pat Etcheberry, she went through some “warm up” exercises. She spent time doing plyometrics, strength and balance work on the swiss ball, catching and throwing medicine balls, and some running. Her “warm up” session would rival an offseason workout for most players. She would play!
The match was an anticlimax, and the favored Clijsters never really had a chance. Winning with guile and grit, Henin beat her rival in straight sets. Within 24 hours, she went from a doubtful starter to the US Open champion.
This spring, my wife and our baby boy took a trip to the south of France. I needed to go on a pilgrimage to the Monte Carlo Country Club, to see first-hand where Bjorn Borg used to practice. I knew it would be good karma for our baby, who is stuck with two tennis-mad parents.
When we arrived, I saw Justine, her coach Carlos Rodriguez, and a sparring partner drilling on an outside court. Henin was doing exhausting intervals and working on perfecting the forehand that had already delivered her four titles at Roland Garros. To my horror, my wife hopped out of the car with the baby and ran to courtside. “Bonjour Justine! Our baby loves you!” I hid in the car, dying of embarrassment and thinking the worst. Instead of reacting angrily (or being frightened!), Justine sweetly said “Bonjour baby. He is so cute…” I apologized quickly to Carlos (who pretended not to mind) and peeled away in our rental car.
In a few years time, when we visit the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island as a family, it will be a story that I can always share with our son. “Remember when you met Justine Henin when she was ranked No. 1 in the world…?” I can only hope that he hits his backhand as Henin did hers.
Like Maggie Fitzgerald, Justine Henin has chosen to leave on her own terms. Thankfully, her decision was a happier one than the wounded Hollywood boxer. I suspect that, like most boxers (and an increasing number of tennis players), she will embark on a “comeback.” Regardless, she is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and remains shoulder-to-shoulder with Serena Williams as the best player of her generation.