Justine Henin - 'To succeed during a very painful personal period brought big satisfaction' - Legends’ Voice
Other than Grand Slams, nothing is more prestigious than being the world No. 1. Justine Henin spent 117 weeks at the top of the women’s game. In the second-ever installment of Legends’ Voice, she reflects on this special status and what it means for the players - Ash Barty and Daniil Medvedev - sat at the top of today’s rankings.
Ash Barty, who has decided to skip the Sunshine Double, has held the crown for a total of 118 weeks … one week more than Justine. And out of those 118 weeks, the Australian has captured that spot for 110 weeks in a row, a feat only Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert have surpassed.
On the men’s side, Daniil Medvedev made his debut as world No.1 last week, putting an end to 18 years of domination from the 'Big Four' (Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray).
Winning a Grand Slam and becoming world No. 1 were two dreams I had since I was a little girl. Any player will tell you that winning a Grand Slam brings indescribable, intense joy. Being world No. 1 is another kind of emotion, but it has nothing to do with that incredible moment of adrenaline you get at match point in a Grand Slam. Especially when it's the first one, it's not even close. But being No. 1 is still strongly emotional. It means you reset with new objectives, but you have this feeling of ‘duty accomplished!’ and knowing you have maintained a level of consistency is a big achievement.
I can still remember how I felt the day I became No. 1. It was in the final of Zurich in 2003. It was the end of the season and I was very tired and at the end of my rope. I had enjoyed huge success in Grand Slams by winning Roland-Garros and the US Open, so reaching the No. 1 ranking before the end of the season was of course in my mind. I remember taking a big breath and I had this great feeling of fulfilment. It didn’t necessarily even feel like relief, it was a bit crazy!
When I was a kid, I was a very shy, discrete person, yet I used to say 'I want to be No. 1 in the world'. But I said it in a whisper. When I became No. 1, I really felt like I belonged and it was a beautiful feeling. It was very different from winning a Grand Slam, but it was also beautiful. After all, a sense of fulfilment is also a form of emotion. In my mind, that feeling is maybe healthier than the emotion you get when you win a Grand Slam because that’s something almost out-of-body. That’s how I experienced it anyway! Being No. 1 is your reward for consistency and I liked that.
To become the best was maybe more an ambition than a dream. I am a competitor at heart. Everyone in life has their own level they can reach in their own sphere and for me, that was through sport. I grew up in a family of four. My parents lost their first child, who was a little girl, and I think that all that contributed to my ambition and quest. I did not choose to be the best accidentally.
Today, I manage to detach myself and take some distance now that I am in this second phase of my life where I am much more serene and lucid. But at that time, undeniably, I wanted to be the best and I was very ambitious. But it's still different from the dream of winning a Grand Slam. The French Open was my biggest dream since I was a little girl. But as a person who doesn't give up much, I couldn't just win a Grand Slam and then disappear. To make a big splash and say, 'that's it, I'm happy with that'. That's why the No. 1 spot says and means a lot.
Justine Henin wins her first of seven Grand Slam titles at Roland-Garros 2003
Image credit: Getty Images
I had two distinct periods as No. 1, first in 2003-2004 and then in 2006-2007. I experienced them in a very different way. The first time, I was 21 years old. I didn't feel like it just fell into my lap, because I was always prepared for things, but I was still very young. In 2003, I exploded in Grand Slams. My dream came true by winning Roland-Garros and I backed that up at the US Open and then again in Australia. It was a crazy time, winning three out of four Grand Slams at a fairly young age. Before that, people knew my potential, but I was afraid of certain players, like Kim [Clijsters] or Serena [Williams]. At the beginning of 2003, something clicked after the final in Antwerp where I missed out for the umpteenth time against Kim. I had a long discussion with my coach Carlos [Rodriguez] and it was also the time when I went to the United States to work physically with Pat Etcheverry and that almost triggered my explosion.
After that, I had a physical slump. There was my virus in 2004, despite the victory at the Olympic Games, and then I was less well. In a way, all this is quite normal since I had worked so hard physically in 2003. I worked harder than any other WTA player and it is not only me who says it, others have said it too! I knew that there was a risk of hitting a wall at some point and of reaching a low point. I have no regrets about that because I wanted to reach my goals, but clearly my body needed to recover.
2006-2007 was different. 2006, I played the four Grand Slam finals and 2007 was my biggest season. It was also the year of my divorce. I was in a different phase of my life as a woman and dealing with some big things on a personal level, so I decided to skip the Australian Open. To succeed professionally during a very painful personal period brought big satisfaction, therefore I undoubtedly have even more pride during this second phase of being No. 1.
Justine Henin lifts seventh Grand Slam title at the 2007 US Open
Image credit: Getty Images
Now, the WTA has a great No. 1 with Ashleigh Barty. She is undeniable and deserves 200% to be there! I like her intelligence in the way she manages her career which we saw during Covid times. Times of crisis are always interesting for that. Ashleigh has always been in tune with herself, she has made strong choices and has embraced the need to pause when she feels it’s right to. I think it says a lot about a player who decides to not play for a long time but comes back at the same level. Since her victory at Roland-Garros, she has been impeccably consistent.
Granted, she may be criticised for a lack of charisma which is what some people may say about her. But I really appreciate her personality. She has her feet on the ground which is her strength. You can obviously talk about her tennis, but a lot can be said for her determination, simplicity and intelligence.
She chose not to play in Indian Wells and Miami which is regrettable. When you're No. 1, you have a certain responsibility, so I can understand the critics who say we need the best players - especially in the women’s game - to be present at the biggest tournaments in terms of achieving visibility. When they’re not always there and competing, it means you can miss out on creating real rivalries. We don’t need to have the same player winning all the time, but we need players to have an ongoing presence at tournaments.
But there are two big things to also consider here. First, Covid - this period has been so unprecedented so we can't judge, we can only try to imagine what the players have been through these last two years, whilst also remembering perspective as they are still in a privileged position. Secondly, Barty is an Australian who has just won the Australian Open. History shows how difficult that is. Even though it seems like it was a walk in the park for her, it must have been a lot to handle and it was probably a gruelling two weeks. We'll have to see what happens as the season pans out and we'll know later on if her decision was right. Maybe she has made the right choice - I personally am not surprised by it and think it could be a good omen.
Ash Barty wins the 2022 Australian Open to become the first women’s singles champion in 44 years
Image credit: Getty Images
Daniil Medvedev's position as No. 1 is a little different to Barty’s. You always like to see a player claim that spot during a dominant period because it gives more weight to the achievement. Arguably, Medvedev should have won the Australian Open and that's probably something he'll regret for a long time. At the beginning of the year, a lot has happened with the absence of Djokovic and the Nadal madness which has reshuffled the cards... all of this overshadows Medvedev's takeover a little bit.
I would have preferred him to become No. 1 by winning this Australian Open, even if I am a huge fan of Rafael Nadal! Right now, it seems the top spot in the men’s game lacks a little bit of authority and it’s difficult to really judge it, so I find this period very exciting. Who can say what will happen in the coming months? We are in a huge uncertainty, and after everything we have been through recently, I think it could be very exciting! The future will show us what sort of No. 1 Medvedev goes on to be. Can this new status be a burden for him? Yes, but he is still prepared for it and he has shown that he can handle the pressure. But he has to become stronger on other surfaces if he wants to settle as world No. 1 for the long run.