One day, one epic match: Henin - Williams (semi-final 2003)

Relive this great semi-final between Justine Henin and Serena Williams at Roland-Garros 2003.

Justine Henin against Serena Williams at Roland-Garros 2003©Christophe Saïdi / FFT
 - Danielle Rossingh invites you to experience the 2020 tournament on the original dates by looking back at some of the most memorable matches from the past, round by round. Today, Thursday June 4, we go back to one of the most memorable matches in the fierce rivalry between Justine Henin and Serena Williams: their controversial semi-final clash at Roland-Garros in 2003.

The context

As with all great rivalries in sports, the contrast between Henin, a 1.67 metre-tall, softly-spoken Belgian with a strong tactical game built around a blistering single-handed backhand, and Williams, the defending champion from the US with a hugely powerful game who had become an international superstar when she won the 1999 US Open at the age of 17, could not be greater. 

Williams had entered Roland-Garros on a hot streak, having completed the first of two so-called ‘Serena Slams’ of four Grand Slam singles titles in a row by winning the Australian Open at the start of the season. Could Henin, who had beaten Williams on green clay in the Charleston final just over a month before Paris, end the run? 

Justine Henin after her victory against Serena Williams at Roland-Garros 2003©Christophe Saïdi / FFT

The match

Supported by scores of passionate flag-waving Belgian fans on the main Court Philippe-Chatrier, Henin took the first set 6-2 as she took the initiative. But Williams regrouped in the second set, breaking serve with a few brilliant backhands to take the match into a decider. With Williams up a break in the third set, Henin later said she was “really beginning to doubt whether I could win.

Then, with Williams serving at 4-2, came a few controversial moments that would turn the match around. At 15-0, Williams stopped the point and circled the mark as a shot sailed just over the baseline. This drew whistles from spectators, even though chair umpire Jorge Dias swiftly confirmed the ball had indeed been out. At 30-0, even though the crowd was still booing, Williams served. But midway through her service motion, Henin raised her left hand, to show she was not yet ready to receive. After Williams’ serve landed in the net, she asked Dias: “First serve? She had her hand up.” To which Dias replied, “I didn’t see that.” He looked Henin’s way, but the Belgian said nothing, even though television footage showed her making the gesture. Williams objected to hitting a second serve, but it was to no avail. She would end up losing the point, the game and eventually the match, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, as the crowd started to cheer her every error.

What they said

Williams broke into tears during her post-match news conference. “I was a little disappointed with her,” Williams said of Henin's hand gesture. “I probably still should have won the game. It definitely didn't turn around the match. But I think to start lying and fabricating, it's not fair. I understand that, you know, people want to win these days but, I don't know.

In 2011, Henin spoke about the controversy, and said she regretted it. “I think she saw it and was disturbed by that,” Henin said of Williams’ reaction to her hand gesture. “So it’s true that it’s not the best memory.

Match stats

Williams made 47 unforced errors, 16 of them in the final set.

Justine Henin with the trophy at Roland-Garros 2003©FFT

What happened next ?

After dethroning Williams, Henin overcame her compatriot Kim Clijsters, another great rival, in straight sets in the final to win the first of what would be seven Grand Slam singles titles. Henin’s breakthrough at Roland-Garros in 2003 sparked a period of dominance, which saw her triumph at the US Open later that year, rising to No 1 in the world, taking the 2004 Australian Open and clinching singles gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics. But Henin was most succesful on her beloved clay, winning three more titles at Roland-Garros in 2005, 2006 and 2007. She would go on to defeat Williams three more times at a Grand Slam event, and finish their rivalry with a 6-8 head to head record.

But after a hugely successful 2007, during which she won two majors, the Belgian stunned the tennis world in May 2008 when she announced her immediate retirement. Although she made a successful comeback in 2010, reaching the final of the Australian Open, an elbow injury eventually forced her to retire for good in 2011.

After Henin ended her Grand Slam run, Williams took revenge on the lawns of the All England Club a few weeks later, beating the Belgian in straight sets in the semi-final before successfully defending her Wimbledon title. Since their clash at Roland-Garros in 2003, Williams would go on to become the most successful player of the Open era. She also won Roland-Garros in 2013 and 2015 and now holds 23 Grand Slam singles titles, needing one more to equal the all-time record of 24 held by the Australian, Margaret Court.

Relive the match between Pierce and Hingis (semi-final 2000)

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