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Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Henin simply irreplaceable

I'm guessing you were shocked when you heard the news. I'm also guessing, if you work in the U.S., you were mostly alone in your shock. Justine Henin is a star to tennis fans, but not quite a watercooler-worthy topic here. The opposite was true for me. As I walked into the Tennis Magazine office this morning, someone immediately said, "Did you hear this, Tignor?" My eyes went to a computer screen with the words "Henin Hanging It Up" emblazoned across the top. I stopped in my tracks.

On the one hand, how could you not be stunned? This is a woman who, one week ago, said to a Reuters reporter about the upcoming French Open, "It's going to be very special. … I would love to go for a fifth one. That would be a dream for me -- more than a dream." On the other hand, Henin has never hesitated to make startling snap decisions. She retired in the middle of the 2006 Australian Open final, in front of the world, when it looked like she could keep playing. And for a No. 1 player, she had her share of head-scratching moments -- her loss to Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon in 2007 was just the latest. Henin's enormous talents were always bound up with enormous fragility.

Now that the shock has worn off, I can only think of the immediate consequence: a gaping hole in women's tennis. With her baseball cap low and ponytail pulled tight, Henin was hardly a WTA marketer's dream. She was something better: a player's player, someone whom every tennis fan, even the men on the ATP tour, could enjoy watching for her blend of explosive athleticism, vintage technique and comprehensive variety. She'll be remembered most for the abandon with which she hit her flyaway one-handed backhand -- perhaps the best in women's history -- but her forehand was just as memorable. She was one of the few WTA players who could run around and rip it inside out. More often than not, when she needed a point, that's the shot that won it for her. As much power as the remaining top women have, there's no one left who can bring it with the flair that Justine did.

At 25, with seven Slams, Henin could have moved into the top echelon of Open era women players. As it stands now, I'd place her eighth, one notch below Serena Williams and one above her sister Venus. More than her unique game, what I'll miss about Henin is her emotional range, which was wider than most champions. She'd let out a brazen "Allez!" after hitting a winner, and seconds later stare pleadingly toward her coach, looking anxious and utterly alone at the center of the arena. As talented as she was, the game was tough on her small body and brittle psyche. Playing bigger players meant making a bigger effort to wrest control of every match.

In the 2006 French Open final, Henin beat one of those bigger players, Svetlana Kuznetsova, in a seemingly routine straight-setter. I was sitting on her side of the court for the final game, and I could clearly hear her gasping -- not grunting, gasping -- with each stroke. She sounded on the verge of hyperventilating. Two weeks at a Grand Slam took everything out of Henin, even when she made it look easy. Maybe we shouldn't be shocked that 20 years of tennis would take all that this most intense of champions had to give.