Justine Henin had become the first Belgian tennis player to win a gold medal in Olympics. (Image credit: WTA Twitter)
Justine Henin was experiencing the ultimate highs in the world of tennis during the start of the 21st century. Along with Kim Clijsters, Henin had put Belgian tennis on the world map with her magnificent performances. After impressing the world with her final appearance in Wimbledon in 2001, Henin attained Grand Slam glory by winning the French Open and the US Open in 2003. She topped it with a win in the Australian Open in 2004 and she was firmly on the path to glory. Then came the fall. Henin was diagnosed with Cytomegalovirus, a virus. Her condition deteriorated to such an extent that she often slept up to 18 hours a day and barely had the strength to brush her teeth.
A botched comeback at the French Open saw her early exit and many feared that the best days for the Belgian was behind her. However, Henin displayed her mettle and showed the world that she was made of sterner stuff. Speaking on the sidelines of the 2019 French Open junior wild card tennis tournament in New Delhi, Henin highlighted her struggles. “It was the hardest part in my career when I was away from tennis due to this illness. When you know what is going it, it becomes easier to cope. A virus, you don't know. An injury you know how to tackle it. A virus, some feel it and others don't feel it. As a sports athlete, I felt the impact of the virus a lot. I had no idea whether I would be back in two months, four months or a year, maybe never. It is hard for an athlete to go through all this,” Henin said.
Although Henin never gave up on her dream to resume competitive tennis, she did have her moments when she felt really low. “I did not think my career would end. Of course, at that time, you do start to doubt and one feels that 'oh, my career is over.' I did not know what to expect at that time. It was tough. I tried to come back. However, it was too early and I was not yet ready for it. And then, I decided to let the pressure go,” Henin said.
The Olympic dream
The 2004 Olympics was held in Athens and Henin was on her way to full fitness before the start of the tournament. Slowly but surely, the mojo had returned. “I was determined to live the Olympic experience, which is one of the best. It features so many athletes. To feel the passion and the love for the sport was just amazing. I started to feel better a few weeks before the Olympics. I was ready to play there,” Henin said.
The dream almost derailed for the Belgian in the semi-final stage. Henin had played flawless tennis but in the semi-final against Russia’s Anastasia Myskina, she was trailing 1-5 and was in danger of leaving Athens without a medal. “Match after match, there was something magical that was going through. There was a shine around me. I was 0-5 down in the third set in the semi-final and decided to play point by point. I had decided that I wanted to keep the adventure going. I came back to the match and when I look back, I did love this kind of situations. People think it is over but deep down, I had the feeling that until the last point is played, nothing is over. If I win the next one, I am still into it,” Henin said.
Point by point, slowly but surely, Henin bounced back and went on to win a titanic contest and win the final set 8-6 to set-up a showdown against Amelie Mauresmo. In the final, she won 6-3,6-3 to secure the Olympic gold for the first time. “I kept reminding myself that after such a long match and wonderful adventure, I was not too keen to come back and play for the bronze medal playoff. I did not want to come tomorrow. I wanted the gold medal and that gave me the extra energy I needed,” Henin said.
French Open second home
When one associates Henin, all her memorable moments have come in the French Open. She had won the junior French Open in 1997 and six years later, won the French Open at a larger level. Her first match on television was the French Open final between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles.
When asked about the deep connection that she had with the French Open, Henin said, “Roland Garros is in my heart forever. When I go over there, the atmosphere is very special. When I first watched for the first time, it was Roland Garros. I remember the sound of the ball, the sliding of the clay. I was watching Steffi Graf and Stephan Edberg and I said I wanted to be like them. I also went with my mother to Roland Garros when I was 10. It has always been close to my history. Paris is closer to Belgium. It is my second home,” Henin said.
Champions are determined by the way how they overcome champions. For Henin, considered one of the most elegant and brilliant players of her time, her story indeed makes her a worthy champion.