Henin: The queen has abdicated

The queen has abdicated. The throne is bare and the pretenders are circling at the French Open, which began on Sunday, with expectations high for an unusually large number of women players who feel they have been handed the rarest of opportunities.

For the first time in almost a decade, winning at Roland Garros will not mean having to beat Justine Henin. Few retirements from the game have come as quite such a shock as Henin’s announcement just over two weeks ago that she was leaving tennis and relinquishing her position as world number one.

The woman herself, introduced in glowing terms by French federation president Christian Bîmes, was trying to explain to a still slightly incredulous media why she quit—especially when the tournament she had won for the past four years was so close.

“If I felt that tennis wasn’t any more what I wanted to do, why should I be here as a player?” she said.
“There is no reason. If I feel that I’m at the end of my way, there is no reason why I should play this tournament. I know what I did here in the past and I don’t need to live this again. I’m fine with my career. All the emotions I wanted to live, I had them here at the centre court of the French Open. I’m happy and proud with that.”

Henin reiterated that it was her decision to have her name removed entirely from the WTA ranking list. “I’m really proud that I can retire as number-one player in the world, but I asked Larry Scott and the WTA that I wanted to be removed from the ranking because for me, I know that my life is now far from the courts. I don’t want to see myself in the ranking any more. It’s really my personality to do that.”

The personality was as remarkable as her game—the one-handed backhand reflecting its beauty and the deadly focus of a tough-as-teak champion revealing the hard core that allowed her to survive the death of her mother at 13 and huge family problems that have now been resolved.

Few players of such small physique have dominated Roland Garros for as long as Henin—Chris Evert would be the best comparison—and the void she has left can be gauged by the fact that so few observers have any sure idea of who will succeed her.

Maria Sharapova is the ranking favourite, having moved up to the top spot on the computer, but this is the only Slam title the tall Russian has never won and there are technical reasons why she has failed thus far. Sharapova does not move as well on clay as some of her rivals and the slowness of the court blunts a little of her power. She is also suffering from a calf strain. Nonetheless, she is definitely among the group capable of winning in a week’s time.

But the odds are heavily in favour of a Serb finding herself in the final. It cannot be two because last year’s finalist, Ana Ivanovic, the number two seed, is in the same half as Jelena Jankovic, who arrived in Paris with the confidence of a morale-boosting win in Rome only a week ago.

Should they meet in the semifinal—and each will have to deal with a Williams sister to get there—I would favour Jankovic, mostly because her recent form has been marginally better than that of Ivanovic and because she moves better than anyone on clay.

The bottom half of the draw appears to hold the key because, after the Serbs, Serena Williams is always going to be a factor if she is fit, and she has assured us that she is. “I’m feeling better than I did last week,” she said, referring to a back problem. So can she win?

“I’m pretty much insatiable,” she said. “I always shoot and strive for the best. I feel my scale is going up right now. My goal is always to win and I definitely have expectations.”

Serena won this title in 2002 and, given the mood she is in now, there should be nothing to stop her reaching a semifinal match against Ivanovic, where it will come down to personality and desire.

Venus has Alize Cornet in her quarter. Cornet is an 18-year-old from Nice who has risen from number 55 to number 19 in the world this year and is looking like yet another French star in the making.

But let us leave the last word with the departing champion. Who does Justine want to win? “Svetlana Kuznetsova,” she replied. “I like her and I think she has a chance.”

Kuznetsova lost in the final to Henin in 2006 so, as with all the rest, she will be eyeing the crown.—Â

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