RG rewind: The start of the Henin era

First major title in 2003 connects the Belgian with her past and launches a Grand Slam future

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

For one fleeting moment, Justine Henin drowns out the noise, covers her eyes and throws her head to the sky.

It is a lasting image of the then 21-year-old, cap fixed around her blonde ponytail, smiling at her entourage, a major champion for the first time on Court Philippe-Chatrier 20 years ago.

By the end of the 2007 season, the Belgian had collected seven Grand Slam titles, including three more in Paris.

While watching from the stands as Monica Seles edged Steffi Graf in the 1992 women’s final, a young Henin had vowed that she would one day triumph on that arena. That was three years before her mother passed away.

True to her word, she realised her Roland-Garros dream with a 6-0, 6-4 victory over compatriot Kim Clijsters.

“I can remember match point very well. Above all, I remember Kim’s forehand that hit the top of the net and then rebounded,” Henin told rolandgarros.com. “I thought it was going to bounce up a few metres before landing on her side. In the end it didn’t go very high at all, but to me, it felt like an eternity.

“I watched it all the way, and then that was it: I’d won Roland-Garros. It’s an almost indescribable feeling.

“I really think, in hindsight, that what happened was that I felt a very strong connection with my mother, just for an instant.

“That second was a moment when I truly felt connected with my past, with what had happened to my mother, and what I’d told her a few years previously.”

Seeded fourth, Henin had coasted through the opening three rounds before her first serious test against Swiss No.19 seed Patty Schnyder. In the quarter-final, eighth seed Chanda Rubin put up little resistance as Henin soared into her fifth major semi.

Then came her greatest hurdle of the fortnight, top seed Serena Williams.

The 21-year-old American had won 33 straight Grand Slam matches heading into this showdown, but an inspired Henin broke the stranglehold and prevailed 7-5 in the third set for her second Grand Slam final.

Welcome competition

Clijsters had assured Belgium of its first major champion after she pulled clear of Nadia Petrova in her semi-final. Brussels’ cobbled market square, La Grand-Place, became a sea of red, yellow and black two days later as fans piled in to watch the final on the big screen.

French crowds had been treated to one of the great rivalries of the women’s game two years earlier when an 18-year-old Clijsters held off Henin to reach a maiden Slam final against Jennifer Capriati.

Their Paris rematch was not as close a contest this time round.

“It definitely wasn't nice at the time, but now it's a good memory,” Clijsters joked. “It was incredible. What a change, right? Not just for Belgian tennis but the tennis world in general.

“Looking up to Justine, she was always a year older than me but we kind of had opposite strengths. She had the touch, the finesse of sliding on clay.

“For me, it wasn't as natural but I did admire that side of her and tried to become better because of it. To see her dominate on the court and to see her have these great results, to think it's 20 years since her first is crazy.”

The pair squared off 25 times in their careers and while Clijsters finished with a 13-12 edge, Henin emerged triumphant in the three Grand Slam finals they contested.

Clijsters eventually tasted success with three US Opens and an Australian Open, but she never again reached a Roland-Garros decider.

'A dream come true'

For Henin, it triggered a five-year stretch of dominance on the terre battue in which she added three more women’s singles trophies in Paris to complement her Australian Open and two US Open titles.

A vow fulfilled, her 2003 breakthrough was just the beginning.

“I climbed into the stands to hug my loved ones, to give Carlos [Rodriguez] a big hug too because it was important for me to share that with them,” Henin said. “You’re alone on the court, it’s a dream come true, but at the same time, you can’t do it on your own…

“You have to take it all in, be in the moment… You can never truly enjoy it to the full because I was very young, I was only 21. Yes, it’s me, but at the same time it’s not me. That’s what’s so magnificent about that moment.”