Category Archives: Justine Henin

Join us for the men’s Australian Open final! We’ll be blogging live on Sunday morning, January 27, at 12:30am (PST)/3:30am (EST)/9:30am (CET). We’ll stay up if you’ll stay up.

Serena and Venus Williams lost their singles matches and their doubles match at the Australian Open. Are other players passing them by?

As Ana Ivanovic powered Venus Williams off the court in their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open – Ivanovic won the match by the score of 7-6(3), 6-4 – I couldn’t help wondering if I wasn’t seeing the tail end of the Williams sisters era.

Venus’ sister Serena lost to Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals and the sisters also lost their doubles match.

Both sisters were injured but neither one would reveal her injury. Serena was moving awkwardly and Venus walked onto the court with a slight limp and her thigh wrapped with enough bandage to cover a mummy. This is what Serena had to say about her injury situation:

I was having some issues, but I don’t like to make excuses. We won’t discuss those.

Neither Venus’ mother nor her hitting partner knew why Venus was limping and Venus wasn’t telling. Here’s what she said about the subject:

I never talk about my injuries.

Listen, nobody thinks you’re making an excuse if you divulge an injury after a loss. Justine Henin said her knee was bothering her after her lopsided loss to Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals and nobody is complaining about her today. Players refuse to reveal their injuries so they can maintain a mystique of invulnerability but Serena and Venus have been injured so much that there’s no mystique left.

I am apparently not the only person wondering about the sisters. Someone asked Venus the following question after her match with Ivanovic:

Has to be a long time, if ever, since you and Serena lost singles and doubles within 24 hours at a big tournament. If people start talking about the Williams era being over, what would you have to say to them?

What can she say? Yes, you’re right? What she did say is that she’s a champion and she expects to be a champion. It’s hard to count out either sister and we’re not sure how much Venus’ thigh was bothering her but there were points in her match when it very much looked like Ivanovic was passing her by.

Both players started out slowly. Ivanovic has a bad habit of being very nervous coming out of the gate. When she got to the French Open final last year, she was so nervous she couldn’t serve properly. Venus couldn’t get her serve over 100mph (160kmh) herself.

By the end of the second set, though, both players looked strong and Venus was just pounding the ball. At 4-4, she pounded a bunch of balls at Ivanovic’s backhand then sent a ball down the line. Ivanovic ran the ball down then got Venus on the run for few shots before putting an inside out forehand away. Ivanovic then leaned back and let out a big “Oh yeahhhhh.” Venus had hit her with her best shot and ended up playing defense.

Venus didn’t give up. She pounded a few more balls and got two break points as Ivanovic was serving for the match, but Ivanovic had found her serve by now and a few good serves put the match away.

It was a great show by Ivanovic but I wouldn’t say she’s ready to win a slam just yet. It’s those nerves! She should have rolled over Daniela Hantuchova in the semifinals but she started slowly again: she lost the first set 6-0. She won the match, 0-6, 6-3, 6-4, and she’s into her second slam final but she won’t get away with that against Maria Sharapova who ran over Jelena Jankovic, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the final.

Blake is Getting Better, Really He Is

I’m encouraged by James Blake’s play. I really am. He looked sharp against Roger Federer in their quarterfinal match and that’s progress.

Federer wiped him off the court in Cincinnati last year. Blake doesn’t have enough game to beat Federer. He doesn’t have enough variety and his strength – hard flat shots – feeds right into Federer’s strength – quicksilver defense. Blake also has an average serve and he’s not going to outduel too many players from the baseline. But he kept attacking Federer and played a very high level of tennis. Check this out.

Blake was serving at 3-2 in the first set when he got to the net and hit a drop volley. Fed ran from one corner of the court to the other to get to the ball and hit a lob that landed just inside the baseline. Blake spun and raced back to the baseline and when he got there – no lie – he hit a between-the-legs lob! I have never ever seen a between-the-legs lob before, have you? Fed hit a soft overhead in response then followed that up with a forehand error. Definitely a top ten candidate if not top five for best point of the fortnight.

Blake is now back in the top ten and it looks like he really is getting better at age 28.

The question now is: can Novak Djokovic beat Federer?

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 241 user reviews.

Can Serena Williams defend her Australian Open title? Can Jelena survive another 22 game third set?

Serena

While Serena Williams was obliterating Jarmila Gajdasova in her first round match at the Australian Open today, I wondered if Serena is in the proper state of mind to defend her title.

Serena can’t sneak into town this year and run off with a title like she did last year. She’d been missing for most of two previous years and her opponents no doubt relaxed just the slightest bit. This year they’ll know better.

How is she emotionally? While her sister Venus recently got engaged to her boyfriend, golfer Hank Kuehne, Serena is working through a breakup with her boyfriend, Jackie Long. All you have to do is read a few sentences of this very personal blog Serena posted about the breakup to see the pain she felt. The timing of her sister’s engagement must have some sting to it.

Physically Serena should be happy because she played all four slams last year and did no worse than the quarterfinals. On the other hand, she suffered injuries at critical times. She injured her calf at Wimbledon and reinjured her surgically repaired knee at the year end championships. At least she made it to the year end championships. That’s a victory in itself.

All things considered, Serena is in pretty good shape but that will not be enough to defend her title. Justine Henin skipped the Australian Open last year to deal with her divorce and Serena’s three quarterfinal losses last year were all to the same player: Justine.

Jelena

Here’s the main reason to push the Australian Open back to the end of February: nobody is in match shape, people. If you’re a French player and you live in Switzerland to avoid the high French taxes, you can run up and down mountains all day long, it doesn’t matter, you still won’t be match tough by the third week of the season.

Look at the opening round match between Jelena Jankovic and Tamara Paszek. After splitting the first two sets, they got to 5-5 in the third set and both players forgot how to hold serve.

Nine straight breaks of serve followed. Yes, nine. Paszek served for the match five times unsuccessfully. It’s not that there weren’t some great points, there were. Jankovic hit a beautiful stretch volley for a winner after a protracted rally featuring sharply angled shots that pulled both players off the court. That shot ended Paszek’s third attempt at serving for the match.

But for each of those points, there were two gimmes hit into the net or beyond the baseline. And neither player could serve anymore. Jankovic hit 14 double faults in the match and Paszek served five straight faults at one point. Jankovic also needed two injury timeouts for lower back pain that was visibly bothering her.

They were like two drunken sailors throwing punches at each and missing badly. Here’s the next suggestion for the Australians: join the 21st century, use a third set tiebreaker. It’s not tennis after awhile, it’s survival.

Jankovic managed to find a way to win the match, 2-6, 6-2, 12-10. She deserves a lot of credit for that but it’s not clear how long her body can last. She retired three times during Hopman Cup matches and now she’s injured her back.

Jankovic’s fellow Serbian, Ana Ivanovic, passed Jankovic in the standings last week and moved into the number three spot. Jankovic has repeatedly said that she plays tennis for one reason only: to reach the number one ranking. I think her shot at that may have passed, especially as Maria Sharapova seems to be healthy again.

If I’m right and Jankovic does slide down the rankings to no better than fifth or sixth, I’ll be interested to see how long she sticks around.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 221 user reviews.

Let’s hand out the Teddy Awards. Tomorrow I’ll look at the contrasting way that Martina Hingis and Roger Clemens are handling their illegal drug use problems.

I’m disappointed that Hillary Clinton didn’t win the Iowa presidential caucus – the opening state primary for the U.S. presidential election. But the Teddy Awards votes are finally in and I can’t complain about them.

1. Best Player: Justine Henin and David Ferrer

Both players got the same number of votes and, really, the only surprise here is Ferrer. He deserves the vote even if he was helped along by Federer-fatigue (the state of being tired of talking about Roger Federer).

2. Most Improved Player: Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer

Another tie for this category. Fair enough though Anna Chakvetadze probably suffered because we didn’t have separate categories for men and women. Djokovic shot up like a rocket. He won two Masters series events, five tournaments, and, unbelievably, reached the semifinals in two slams and the final in another. What more can you say about Ferrer? While Djokovic jumped by leaps and bounds in his physical and mental play, Ferrer aged. What else can you call it when a player doesn’t figure out he’s a top five player until he’s 25-years-old?

3. Most Disappointing Player: Marat Safin

I personally am over my disappointment in Safin. I’ve been disappointed for too many years. Besides, he really hasn’t been the same since his knee surgery.

4. Most Surprising Player: David Ferrer

No need for more comment except that David Nalbandian got more than a few votes in this category and Marion Bartoli might have done well if she’s had any good results after her Wimbledon final appearance.

5. Male Centerfold of the Year: Feliciano Lopez

6. Female Centerfold of the Year: Ana Ivanovic

There wasn’t much competition in the centerfold category. There was a little Rafael Nadal and some Carlos Moya in the mix but Ana was the unanimous choice for the women.

7. Player in Most Need of a New Coach: James Blake

Poor Brian Barker. People have been trying to take James Blake away from him ever since Blake hit the top 20. Blake will never leave his coach. Barker has drilled the idea of improving as the main goal into Blake’s head since he was an adolescent. Improving is just nebulous enough that Blake feels comfortable with it. If Barker had set the goal of winning a slam instead, Blake might have fulfilled it by now. As it is, Blake will continue to justify playing poorly in high profile events by coming up with something, anything, that can be counted as improvement. Lose yet another five set match in the fourth round at the U.S. Open? No problem, at least he won his first career five set match in the second round and that’s an improvement. See what I mean?

8. Player Most Likely to Succeed in 2008:

There’s no winner here because I asked the question incorrectly. Some people thought I was asking who’d win the most slams in 2008 – Federer got those votes – and some people thought I was asking who would improve the most in 2008 – Andy Murray got those votes. I meant to ask who would improve the most and I agree with the choice of Murray. I think he can compete with Djokovic in finally taking a slam from Federer and Nadal. Then again, that’s what I said last year.

9. Player Who Should Really Think About Retiring: Mark Philippoussis

Philippoussis won by a landslide and deservedly so. Last year he was heard saying that he thinks his best tennis is still ahead of him. I believe in pumping yourself up but that comment was surreal. Anyway, he reinjured his knee during the competition for an Australian Open wild card so it’s probably the Outback Series for him from now on.

Pollster

Since I botched the Player Most Likely to Succeed in 2008 award, let’s do this. Mosey on over to the poll on the right side of the page and vote for the player most likely to break Federer and Nadal’s stronghold on slam titles. Ferrer is ranked number five in the world but I just don’t think he’s got enough offense to win a slam. You could say the same thing about Murray and he’s only got three titles to his name so far though that might change tomorrow – he’s in the Doha final. But he’s one of my two choices. Djokovic is the other. I just can’t picture Nalbandian doing it.

What say you?

Average Rating: 4.9 out of 5 based on 199 user reviews.

Why Marat Safin has a few slams and David Nalbandian does not.

Our intrepid reader Jenny placed David Nalbandian in the same category as Marat Safin: supremely gifted but lacking in commitment. I had never really thought to compare Nalbandian and Safin but after I thought about it for a while, I realized the comparison may explain why Safin has two slams and Nalbandian has none.

When I look at Safin I think to myself: “Extreme talent but, Lord, can he ever get out of his own way?” When I look at Nalbandian I think: “Solid, solid player but he’s missing the world class monster-eating-must-win-at-any-cost gene.”

One of them has too much fire and the other doesn’t have enough. I’m not sure it’s fiery competition that gnaws at Safin. He’d have a tortured soul if we’d never heard of him and he worked at a fish market. That’s just his personality. And he’s Russian. Russian literature is crawling with tortured souls.

Tennis has had a few of its own. Boris Becker qualified. Becker railed at himself on court and put himself in difficult positions off it. He married a black woman in post-war Germany and suffered through silly misdeeds such as fathering a child from a quickie encounter in a restaurant while his pregnant wife was in the hospital.

Nalbandian is missing that fire. Nadal has it, Djokovic has it, Henin lives and breathes it. I think Mauresmo had it too though not any more. Nalbandian is a bit removed. There’s nothing cerebral about wanting to kill your opponent. It’s a very visceral feeling and there’s something about Nalbandian that isn’t visceral. He’s there but floating just a bit above himself looking down and watching instead of being down and dirty in the mud slogging it out for all he’s worth.

Some people are more comfortable being runners-up. Nalbandian may be one of them. I used to play tennis with my friend Tremell every week. He was a much better player so I started each set with a three game lead. I was very proud when I reached the day that I didn’t need a three game handicap but there was a problem. Tremell preferred starting each set down three games because he was more motivated when he was behind.

Once you’ve reached a number one ranking or won a slam and have to defend it, your job description changes. You’re no longer part of the crowd trying to knock off the top player, you’re job is fending off challengers. That requires even more confidence than it took to get to the top and that’s why players like Safin and Mauresmo win one or two slams then stop. Their talent got them there but they don’t have the personality to stay for any amount of time.

It’s getting harder to say that Nalbandian doesn’t have the personality to win a slam. He won the Madrid and Paris Masters Series events this fall and that ain’t half bad. But I’m still gonna say it. I don’t think he gets a slam.

I expect Andy Murray, one of those other tortured souls, to win one first.

Teddy Awards

Let’s continue with our Teddy Awards voting. Next up: Most Surprising Player. Please go to the right side of the page and vote.

Also, if you’d help me out I’d appreciate it. I’ve been nominated for the Ladbroke’s Sportingo Author of 2007 Award. Please go here and vote for moi (Nina Rota).

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 284 user reviews.

Twenty-five game winning streak, 63-4 record, 14 out of the 16 tournament wins, two slams and a year end championship title. This is not the ATP, this is not Roger Federer, this is Justine Henin and it could have been three slams if she hadn’t skipped the Australian Open to deal with her divorce.

I spent a fair amount of time looking up comparable records on the women’s side this morning. As far as I can tell, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova are the only women players with a better won loss record. Graf’s record was 86-2 in 1989 and Navratilova was 86-1 in 1983. Notice how many more matches women played in that era, by the way, and yet they didn’t appear to break down anywhere near as much as today’s players do.

We’ll see if Justine goes on to surpass, say, the Williams sisters in slams – go to the sidebar and cast your vote on the question – but it’s more interesting to look at Justine’s emotional arc than her numbers.

The Williams sisters have their own compelling story: hardscrabble childhood, crazy like a fox tennis coach father, competing careers in fashion and entertainment. But Justine has somehow managed to play out her emotional life in front of us as she’s made her way to the top, and unlike Serena and Venus, she’s done it by revealing as little as possible about herself. No reality show for Justine just yet.

These days Justine is a veritable fountain of sharing relative to the early part of her career. At that time we knew her mother had died when she was 12 years old, and we knew she was estranged from her father and siblings, but that’s about it, and she wasn’t going to tell us much more than necessary. If you saw her in the players’ cafeteria, there she was with her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, the two of them a little island in a sea of players. Even now she’s one of those people who close her eyes when she talks to you as if to be sure she doesn’t give away too much.

Many players fall apart when life intervenes in their career. Nikolay Davydenko is buckling under the pressure of an ongoing gambling investigation as we speak. Henin, though, just appears to be getting stronger.

This year she divorced her husband and created a bit more independence from Rodriguez and his family – which was her substitute family after all. At the same time she welcomed her father and siblings back into her life. In the process of opening her heart a bit more to herself and to the public, she seems to have learned that the stoicism that carried her through the early part of her career was a brittle strength. It didn’t allow her to stand on her own.

For most players on the tour, though not all, tennis is an all-consuming passion. For Justine I think it goes one step farther and it’s the key to why she’s been able to keep rising up the ranks despite an emotionally wrenching journey.

Tennis has been the substitute for some of Justine’s life outside of tennis and now that the outside world is creeping back into her life, her tennis is secure enough that it enhances her game. Most people need their personal lives in order to perform well in their career. Some people do it the other way around. Success in their career gives them the confidence to open their hearts to those in their personal lives.

Justine doesn’t need a reality TV show, we’ve been watching it all along.

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 291 user reviews.