This weekend, I sat down to watch two of my favorite tennis players square off at Roland Garros. Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin played a great match. The following is a reflection on the two-day affair.
Appearances often deceive—in life and in sports. Sometimes, the smaller person will prevail—i.e. the one often overlooked when compared to other, more polished people. Some people look successful. Maria Sharapova fits that mold. Her opponent last weekend at the French Open, Justine Henin, has often been underestimated in the world of professional tennis. That’s because Henin doesn’t look like a star—she’s physically unimpressive and lacks a charismatic personality that draw fans. But, she has one thing her competitors’ lack—a lioness’ heart. No sport measures heart and mental toughness more than tennis. Having physical tools help one ascend to the top of the world rankings but mental strength keeps one there. Both Sharapova and Henin reached number one in the world during their career; only one stayed at that peak for an extended period of time. Justine Henin, the often overlooked star, has that staying power. She captured the match against Sharapova on Sunday in Paris in a face-off that revealed the story of both players’ careers.
Spectators looked past Justine Henin for entire career. She stands just 5’5”; tiny in relation to her rivals. She’s Belgian and doesn’t give the media great sound bites—two attributes that don’t endear her to the American press corps. She’s a grinder. In short, she’s not sexy nor does she play a flashy game. Determination—that’s the characteristic most associated with Henin. She doesn’t have a big serve nor is she particularly accurate with her serve but she has a tremendous will, great mental strength, and a personality that refuses to give in to stronger, more gifted players.
She’s acted like the little engine that could for years now when squaring off against superior talent. Her record against the world’s top players during her career is impressive: she’s 12-12 against Kim Clijsters, 10-0 against Jelena Jankovic, 8-6 against Amelie Mauresmo, 7-3 against Maria Sharapova, 7-5, 5-0 against Ana Ivanovic, 5-1 against Dinara Safina, 2-7 against Venus Williams, and 6-8 against Serena Williams. All these players held the number one ranking in the last decade.
Throughout her career, Henin has captured seven major championships. She’s won four times at Roland Garros (the French Open site) and many consider her the game’s best on the slow clay court surface. Many attribute her success on clay to her dedication to physical fitness. Over the last several years, Henin partnered with noted strength/conditioning coach Pat Etcheberry to tone her body and give her the endurance to compete at the highest levels of professional sport. While her fit body gave her physical strength, her sharp mind gave her a leg up on the competition.
Henin and Sharapova began their match late Saturday on a cool and rainy evening. The Belgian came out sharp and took the first set 6-2 in just thirty-five minutes. Things looked easy for Henin; it seemed like another routine victory for the four-time champion. Damp, cool conditions favored her game—they slowed down the court and frustrated her hard hitting opponent. But, Sharapova came roaring back in the second set. The Russian showed the physical tools and splendid game that brought made her a sporting star. She took the set 6-3 to square the match and force a deciding third set. By this time, the sky grew dark and officials suspended the match. The two would resume play the next morning.
This proved disappointing to Sharapova. The Russian had all the momentum and appeared to have her opponent on the ropes. Many wondered if the reprieve would allow the Belgian to come back stronger the next day. That said everyone marveled at the shot making ability Sharapova demonstrated in the second set.
Maria Sharapova has always gotten people to talk—about her and her tennis. The Russian beauty emerged on the scene in 2004 when she won Wimbledon at age 17. That year, she squared off against Serena Williams at the All England Club and thoroughly dismantled her American opponent. The teenager clubbed Williams, at the height of her powers at age 23, with a 6-1, 6-4 thrashing. A new star was born. A day after her conquest, Sharapova remarked that her face-off with Williams didn’t unnerve her in the least: “I wasn’t nervous at all…I knew that the power was within me” she told Sports Illustrated.
She won the US Open at Flushing Meadow in September 2006 and captured the Australian Open in Melbourne eighteen months after that. At twenty, she’d captured three of the four major titles.
She also captured the public imagination. Her game spoke volumes: huge ground strokes and a powerful serve annihilated many opponents. She simply outmuscled her competition. But, it was natural beauty and youthful energy that grabbed the attention of Madison Avenue. This January, Nike announced an 8 year/$70 million deal with Maria. Two and a half years ago, Forbes estimated that she was the highest paid female athlete with earnings of $26 million (most of which came from endorsements).
Sharapova probably wished some of that money could go towards a healthy body. A torn rotator cuff kept her off the tennis circuit from April 2008 through the first few months of 2009. The injury kept her out of the Beijing Olympics and the U.S. Open. She returned in the spring of 2009 just in time for the clay court season (April/May). Her play at the French inspired confidence—she had her second best showing there (a quarterfinal appearance) but her good form didn’t last. She lost in the second round at Wimbledon and in the third round at the U.S. Open. This January, she reached rock bottom—losing in the first round at the Australian.
Her form returned during the spring season and Sharapova made it to the weekend at Paris. A solid second set against Henin gave her hope that she was back as a formidable contender—by knocking off the queen of Roland Garros.
On Sunday morning, Sharapova came out sharp. She broke Henin’s serve and then held her service game to go 2-0 in the deciding set. Then, she won the first three points in the next game to go up 0-40. She had four break points; Henin was on the rope. Going up 3-0, with an opportunity to win a fourth consecutive game on serve would likely propel the Russian on to the next round.
Sharapova flinched. Her foot stepped off the accelerator and she let Henin back in the match. The Belgian played the first two plus games cautiously. On the ropes, she had to respond. She began attacking her opponent. Two deep ground strokes forced Sharapova into hitting weak returns. Henin rushed to the net and hit volley winners. She climbed back from the abyss, took Sharapova to deuce, and then captured the game.
This proved to be a turning point; Maria began to wilt after this moment. Justine captured four straight games and went up 4-2 in the set.
Henin had all the momentum. Then, she took a step back and allowed Sharapova to break her serve at 2-4. The Russian was back on serve and capable of squaring the set at four games a piece.
The Belgian showed her will again. She demonstrated great tenacity in climbing back from 0-2, 0-40 down, but this was something of equal importance. She’d slipped—yet again— and given her opponent a wonderful opportunity. The door was open for Maria to tie the score.
Henin refused to allow this and slammed that door shut in the next game. This game proved to be Sharapova’s last stand. The Russian launched a series of huge ground strokes. Henin fought off a succession of these attacks and kept the ball in play, forcing Sharapova to hit a winner. The Russian failed to do so. Her shots landed wide or slammed into the net.
Up 5-3, Henin wanted to end things on her serve. She came out swinging—hitting two straight aces to go up 30-0. On the next point, Sharapova hit a poor, backhand volley to Henin, essentially lobbing a ball for her opponent to hit for a winner. The Belgian hit the big enchilada and went up 40-0. Sharapova hit an unforced error to end it. The diminutive Belgian captured her 24th straight match at Roland Garros.
Rarely has a match shown such light on two competitors. Sharapova had all the physical tools to win the match. On Sunday morning, she gained early momentum and great confidence after going up 2-0. She then looked to extend that lead during the next game when she had four break points to make it a 3-0 advantage. She seemed ready to take a huge step towards winning that elusive French Open—and couldn’t. The pesky Justine Henin refused to quit.
Henin found a way to win. She dug deep inside herself, battling a balky serve, and found a game plan that allowed her to succeed. That intestinal fortitude, that lioness’ heart, made all the difference.
Henin prevailed because she knew how to win. She recognized that despite all the physical components that make Sharapova an excellent player, the Russian would give her an opening. She had to seize the moment. She did—and that made all the difference.