With the French Open in full swing, it’s worth remembering the great Justine Henin –– perhaps the most naturally talented female tennis star to ever grace a clay court.
Henin won seven Grand Slam titles during her illustrious career and her four on clay puts her behind only Chris Evert and Steffi Graf in the Open Era.
Renowned for her resilience and mental toughness, Henin was also famous for her one-handed backhand, which John McEnroe once described as the best he’d ever seen across both men’s and women’s tennis.
Sadly, the Brussels born Belgian was forced to retire before the age of 30 due to a chronic elbow injury. Nonetheless, the 39-year-old is deservedly part of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Here’s a look back at the career of the tennis icon, who is now considered Roland-Garros royalty.
French Open success
Henin’s four French Open titles came over the span of five years between 2003 and 2007. Indeed, the only anomaly during this period was a shock defeat to Italy’s Tathiana Garbin in the second round of the 2004 competition.
Aside from that defeat, however, the Belgian was ruthlessly dominant at Roland-Garros –– defeating all who stood in her way.
In 2003, Henin beat Serena Williams in a controversial semi-final, before defeating compatriot Kim Clijsters in the final to become the first Belgian player to ever win a Grand Slam singles title.
Two years later, Henin claimed her second French Open title. After being seeded 10th, the former world number one beat Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova on her way to the final, where she defeated France’s Mary Pierce in straight sets to claim her 24th consecutive victory on clay and her 10th consecutive final win.
The following year, the Beligan won in even more impressive circumstances –– beating Kiljsters again in the semi-finals, before defeating Kuznetsova in the final. Henin won the competition without dropping a single set and became the first player since Graf in 1996 to defend her title.
12 months later, it was the same story. Henin, who was the two-time defending champion and top seed, won her third successive title without dropping a single set. At the same time, she also surpassed the $15 million mark in career earnings.
All four Slam finals
While Henin was almost unbeatable on clay for much of her career, she was more than capable on every surface and reached the final of all four Grand Slams in 2006.
At the Australian Open that year, the Belgian defeated Sharapova in the semi-final and stated she was playing the “best tennis of her life.” However, Henin was forced to retire in the final against Amelie Maursemo with a stomach pain –– the first time a player had retired from a major final in the Open Era.
After winning at Roland-Garros, Henin stormed to the final at Wimbledon without dropping a set, where she faced Mauresmo once again. Victory would’ve seen the Belgian complete the career Grand Slam, yet it was Mauresmo who emerged victorious for the second time that year, despite losing the first set.
At the US Open, Henin lost out in the final for the third time, after losing to Sharapova. Nonetheless, she finished the year as the world number one and won the WTA Tour Championships for good measure.
Shock retirement and comeback
In May 2008, Henin stunned the tennis world when she announced her retirement from professional tennis.
In many ways her decision to retire mirrored that of Ashleigh Barty, as Henin was ranked number one at the time and was considered a strong favourite to win her fourth Roland-Garros title in a row.
16 months later, Henin announced her return to tennis and made the final of the Australian Open after being granted a wildcard.
However, this proved to be her last major final appearance, as an elbow injury stunted her progess for much of 2010 and led to her second retirement the following year.
Five years later, Henin became the first Belgian player to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Having won 43 titles across her carer, including seven majors, two Tour Championships and one Olympic gold medal, Henin achieved almost all there was to win in the sport. And had she not retired in 2008, there’s no telling how many titles she may have won.