PARIS — There’s nothing in tennis
quite like a fierce battle, especially when there is a feisty back story and ample bad blood. Virtually all the press room was buzzing over the probable reprise of the rather splendid Serena Williams vs. Justine Henin feud.
After all few party planners would be eager to invite the not exactly mellow Floridian and the emotional Belgian to the same soiree.
The Hatfields and the McCoy clans shared more love. Sarah Palin and Michael Moore are a more likely duo.
After all, many recall the ’03 French Open semis when prior to a Serena first serve, Justine clearly held up her hand as if to say ‘hold it.’ Then, when Serena missed on her serve, Justine said never mind, I didn’t say hold it. Clearly this was not Henin’s finest moment. Here was a clear breach of etiquette and young Serena was not pleased.
“I was a little disappointed with her,” said Williams at the time. “It wasn’t the turning point of the match, I should have still won the game. But to start lying and fabricating is not fair.” Serena has never fully forgotten the not-so-pleasant incident.
More recently, after Serena came off the court after a testy match with Jelena Jankovic in Rome, she supposedly said (or so say the You Tube savants) “don’t worry, I would never cheat you. I’m not Justine.”
No wonder the anticipation of an SW-JuJu face-off was palpable. And when the Belgian rallied to down the almost-Mighty ‘Masha’ Sharapova and Serena dismissed Shahar the Super Sabra Peer, all that was left for the “feud on” match to go on was for Justine to take care of the resurgent singles player, Sam Stosur.
But nobody informed the Aussie of the plan. Stosur did drop the first set 2-6, but then stormed back. Soon the Suzanne Lenglen stadium throng was stunned. Proud Justine tumbled on her rear and tossed her Wilson in frustration. Not surprisingly, the Aussie took ample advantage of the shaky Henin whose mortgage shot – her minted-in-heaven backhand – crumbled under pressure like some left over waffle. Four times in the crunch Justine suffered unforced backhand errors, a lapse that handed the not exactly confident Stosur a stunning 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 win which was concluded with a slam-dunk (“in your face mate”) overhead.
Afterwards the Belgian danced around some questions, saying there was no way she knows whether she can be as good as she once was. And she has no idea how today’s Justine would do against the “pre-retirement” Justine of just a few years ago.
Henin did admit it was hard to come back from mentally and physically draining two day win over Sharapova. She added, “I’ve never had to manage moments like this in my first career… [but] this is not the right time to talk about tennis. It’s all about learning to go for it at the right time, do what is necessary to win, and maybe this is what is lacking right now… It will take time. I’m quite aware of it, but I’m not going to give up. That, I can promise.”
But for now, we will have to wait for what we thought we were promised at Roland Garros: another installment of the juiciest rivalry in tennis – Serena v. Justine.
Still, we learned this: that despite of the fact that she loves Roland Garros and unashamedly calls it “my court” or “my garden;” despite Henin’s great (fresh out of the gate) results in January where she sprinted to the Brisbane final, where she fell to Kim Clijsters, and to the Aussie Open final, where she fell to Serena, coming back to the top on this fiercely competitive WTA Tour may not be quite as easy as Kim (the Super Mother who conquered New York) Clijsters made it look.
Yes, Justine Henin’s tidy blonde ponytail (the most recognizable one in the game since Steffi Graff) still bounces free. But it is not clear whatsoever whether JuJu herself can bounce back to the very top.
Wimbledon, the one Slam Henin was unable to conquer, should be more than revealing, especially if we get that “feud-on” confrontation — Ms. Henin vs. Lady Serena.