Twenty years ago, Justine Henin won in Paris her first-ever Grand Slam title just days after her 21st birthday. In Legends’ Voice, the Eurosport expert reflects on that incredible achievement at Roland-Garros.
If I start to remember Roland-Garros 2003, the first thing that comes to my mind is how I felt when I arrived in Paris that year, because something had really clicked a few weeks before. I had started working with Pat Etcheberry [famous Floridian fitness trainer] in November of the previous year. Physically I was on the right track and I was making progress. But I had suffered a real setback in Antwerp in February losing to Kim Clijsters. I was still being pulled back far behind the baseline by an imaginary elastic band. We had to have a big discussion with Carlos Rodriguez, my coach. I had lost badly. I couldn’t play my game.
When we arrived in Dubai, we had a long talk with Carlos. Basically, the nature of his message was ‘how long are you going to continue playing like that at key moments in matches?’
He was right. I was so constrained. That conversation changed a lot of things for the rest of my career. From then on, I started to free myself and played with confidence and authority.
That year I won in Charleston, beating Serena Williams in the final. I played well in Berlin and won the title. I was having good results, but I was not coming to Roland-Garros thinking ‘I’m under pressure because I played well’, not at all! I had gone through a big setback in 2001, losing to Clijsters in the semis after leading 6-1 4-2. But I was not ready then. 2003 was the first time I felt mature enough, somehow. I was telling myself ‘maybe I’m a favourite among others. I’m certainly not the best placed, but I may have my part to play’.
I think it triggered me mentally as well. And I think it’s all linked to how I felt physically. Through the physical work, I had gained a confidence that I didn’t have a year or two earlier. Because until then, I was still this good player, this young woman who had doubts. I think you have the personality you have and it’s good to doubt – that’s the only way to get things done – but until then, I wasn’t feeling capable of winning. I was not feeling entitled to win Grand Slams. And through the physical work that I undertook during the off-season at the end of 2002, where I really dug deep, there was some kind of liberation on the mental side.
I finally felt confident. I had started visualisation when I was training in Florida in November or December. I have very clear memories of that, walking around the resort and really visualising myself, seeing myself at Roland-Garros six months later. It was very clear. I was able to project myself there. It’s as if I’d built up the path, I have a strong memory of that, I can still feel it in me today. I can see very well where I was in the resort and I was serene. I saw myself winning just as if I was writing history. The power of self-conviction, the power of thoughts, that’s something I believe in. I had started to write the story then.
But visualisation was something I had instinctively done as a little girl, since I was dreaming about winning the Roland-Garros. In 1992, I had won a youth tournament in Belgium and the prize was two seats in the boxes to see the ladies’ final at Roland-Garros.
For me, it was crazy! I was projecting myself! I was not missing a single minute of the French Open back then. So, I went with my mom. My father and my brother found seats elsewhere in the stadium. And we were there, five metres from the court.
I saw that famous Graf-Seles final where my idol will end up losing, 10-8 in the third set.
I can still feel inside me what I felt back then. I grabbed my mom, I was still very small and I said to her, ‘one day I’ll be on this court and I’ll win Roland-Garros too’.
She looked down on me as if to say ironically ‘of course you will honey!’ I felt that the idea behind it was ‘it’s good to dream, but school is more important’. But this moment between the two of us will be with me until my first victory. Justine’s mum died in 1995.
Then of course, the second thing that came to my mind is the semi-final against Serena. She was the ultimate challenge and I always felt intimidated by her. This time I said ‘no’. I refused to let her walk all over me. I went into that match with a lot of eagerness and determination. I’d only played one semi-final before at the French Open, in 2001, and I couldn’t close it. I wanted my revenge. But there’s a time for everything. There are times you’re ready. There are times you’re not. I was not in 2001. And finally, things had changed in 2003, maybe I really was ready. The difference between 2001 and 2003 is a question of maturity and experience.
When you face Serena in a Grand Slam, there’s what she radiates, there’s what she makes radiate around her. She had this aura. I haven’t forgotten what she represented even if we did see the greatest Serena in the Grand Slam in recent years. I was lucky enough to play her at a time when she was at the peak of her career. Yes, she was formidable. She could make you feel so small, really. It was a psychological war against Serena. That’s why I always express my gratitude, she was an inspiration because she pushed us all. I worked harder thanks to her, especially on a purely psychological dimension.
Of course, she was so powerful on court and she had so much ability and quality. But if we stopped rationally at that, just from a pure tennis standpoint, I had no reason to be afraid. But there was really this mental dimension. She had a grip and an influence on her opponents. Because she exuded such a great assurance, such a great determination that it made you bend. That’s not to say that she didn’t build her wins on all her qualities, there were many. But I think that this psychological domination that she had over many girls was also a big part of her success.
Once again, in that match I was walking on thin ice. I almost did not make it as Serena led 4-2 in the third set. But I had this instinct, I wanted a change, I was thinking ‘It’s a big stage, It’s here, it’s now. It’s time to deliver. It’s my moment’. I went into the match convinced I could win. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it.
In the final set, there was that famous incident [the mostly Belgian crowd expressed their displeasure with a ball called out from Henin. Williams served while Henin, embarrassed by the noise, raised her hand. The ball was out and the American would not get a first serve despite her complaints. Serena would lose her serve and then, the match].
A lot of emotions were involved in that moment. Was it all fair? Was it unfair? It was a very tricky to deal with. She was really upset and, in the aftermath, I don’t blame her for that. I honestly also didn’t understand what was at stake right away for her. What it could change. I don’t think there are many players who resisted her either, probably, and at that point I think I left a mark on her mind as well. I triggered her one way or another. After that semi-final, for a while, yes, I’m going to get the upper hand on Serena. We’re going to get into a rivalry that will really become a source of motivation for both of us.
This is so far behind us now. A few years ago, when I was working for a TV during the French Open and I interviewed Serena. There was really a lot of mutual respect. I think that her father, in a way, also had a form of admiration and respect for the fact that I never gave up. I had made quite a few sacrifices in my life, sometimes which seemed quite hard, particularly in terms of my family and he said that, in the end, I didn’t let much get in my way.
The Williams’ have acted the same way in their lives and in their careers. So there might be so many things that differentiate us, but there are also things that bind us. I could never compare myself to Serena and what she has done, to her records. But that bond, this rivalry, it was something that was, for me, really exciting, even if it was not always pleasant. Competition was fierce between us. I think she felt some sort of threat. And on my part, I found it amusing, in a way, to tell myself that I was ‘the little minx who comes to bug her’. It was a bit like that. I think that people found it very amusing too, because physically, we had different qualities too. There was that dimension, on top of the tactical aspects, but again it was primarily psychological. It became a war that was also a game that’s for sure.