Justine Henin interview: The art of winning three French Open titles in a row

On Saturday afternoon, Iga Swiatek will attempt to do what only two women have done in almost 90 years: win three French Open titles in a row.

Since the start of the Open Era in 1968, it’s just Monica Seles and Justine Henin who have pulled off the feat.

Why is it so difficult? Henin, whose trio came in 2005, 2006, and 2007, has an idea.

“Not that many players can play on clay, or certainly be really dominant on the surface,” she tells The Athletic.

“They don’t have that something special to play on clay. Iga, compared to other players — she has something very different to play on clay, and that was the same for me.”

Henin picked up four French Open titles in total. The unknowns of tennis are myriad, but Henin’s record at Roland Garros suggests she was consummately equipped to win more titles, had she decided not to retire on the eve of the 2008 tournament: 25-years-old, world No. 1 and three-time reigning champion. A physically and mentally exhausted Henin “chose to step back to go more to my personal life,” and though she did return to play one more Roland Garros, in 2010, she didn’t compete at the tournament she’d dominated for what could have been her peak years.

Justine Henin celebrates after winning her final French Open title in 2007. (Jon Buckle / PA Images via Getty Images)

As the feeling grows that Swiatek will keep on winning the French Open for the next decade, Henin is a reminder of both how hard it is to be a great, and how quickly things can change. She was not simply a clay-court player. The Belgian won seven Grand Slams in total in the era of the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova, and in 2006 reached all four major finals. Only 5ft 5in (165cm) and with a very slight frame, Henin consistently overcame far more powerful opponents — helped by that picture-book single-handed backhand, and a staggering level of creativity, variation, and finesse.

Her primary legacy is still undoubtedly in Paris. Playing style, match-ups and, well, tennis aside, she explains building that kind of legacy requires an iron-clad confidence, accrued by winning a lot, combined with an almost pathological aversion to complacency that can often manifest as almost comical levels of humility.

She sees this in Swiatek, and also attributes it to the success of the player with the most French Open titles of all time, man or woman: 14-time champion Rafael Nadal. It’s the common thread Henin finds between two players with very different styles, who have both been able to appear almost unbeatable at Roland Garros.



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Henin, 42, spends most of her time at the academy she has run for the past 15 years in Limelette, about 30 kilometres south-east of Brussels. She has two kids, Lalie, 11 and Victor, seven. They and the academy keep her plenty busy.

She also does analysis for French television, including at this year’s Roland Garros. She is not commentating on Saturday’s women’s final, but she will be there to see Swiatek take on the Italian No. 12 seed Jasmine Paolini and potentially match her four titles and three in a row.

How will Swiatek be feeling as she steps on to Court Philippe-Chatrier at around 3pm local time?

“After winning that many in a row of course you feel more confident,” says Henin, who won her last two French Open titles without even dropping a set — notably conceding only three games to Ana Ivanovic in the 2007 final.

“You’ve won more matches so you have the memories of that, you know you can rely on that, and when you come to a place where you’ve won before you feel good. Iga has those memories and I’m sure when she comes back, it’s like she’s coming home. That was really my feeling, it’s still my feeling when I come here 20 years later. Your body and brain feels that.

“She knows the impact she has on her opponents, which is more than on other surfaces. But she keeps improving, and she’ll go for more majors elsewhere as well.

It’s Swiatek’s ability to marry that confidence with a lack of complacency that has put her in a position to match Henin’s three-peat.



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“At the same time you have to know that in every match something can happen,” Henin says.

“When you’re a tennis player at the highest level you know everything can change. Rafa knew this every time he was playing a match here even though he’d won 10 or 11 titles.

“It’s dangerous when you start to think differently, and I’m very impressed with that in Iga. You can feel that she looks like a machine, in her tunnel, but in a certain way we can feel also that she’s a bit anxious, she can be nervous. She doesn’t have that overconfidence.

This is where for me she’s so strong mentally, she finds resources all the time to overcome challenges and find a way. This is really impressive.”

Henin believes clay was such a perfect surface for her because of the extra time it afforded her to hit her shots. She thinks the same for Swiatek, but in a slightly different way. Where the extra time allowed Henin to outmanoeuvre her opponents, with Swiatek, it enables her to unload her power.

Henin’s single-handed backhand was a thing of beauty, whereas Swiatek’s game is defined more by its efficiency.

“I grew up on clay, and it was great for me the way I was sliding and moving,” Henin says. “The extra time to hit shots on the surface gave me time to organise my game — to play in defence, but also be aggressive, and play with variety — using different kinds of zones and trajectories. You have more time to create.

Justine Henin Roland Garros

Justine Henin’s variety and use of the whole court was a crucial part of her game. (Thomas Coex / AFP via Getty Images)

I did like to create different things on the court, I liked to create lots of different aspects, lots of different variations. I think that was why I really did like that surface, and for me it was fun to really use it — to do different things.

“With Iga, the clay gives her the time to really impose her quality hitting the ball. The way she moves, it’s perfect for clay. And not so many players can do it: A lot of them play like they are on hard courts — Iga’s game is made to play on clay.”

Henin doesn’t know Swiatek personally, but the pair share a mutual respect. If Swiatek wins her fourth title tomorrow, she’ll have done it, aged 23, a couple of years younger than Henin when she pulled off the feat.

And Henin will be delighted for her, even if Swiatek’s style isn’t always to her personal taste. “I’m not especially a big fan of the way she plays,” Henin says.

“Her technique, and when I see her play it’s not that it doesn’t give me emotions because I am impressed by a lot of things, but it’s not the kind of game that I really like — the way she hits the ball.

“But a player is more than a technique. A player comes with so many different aspects. And we have a big champion here, that’s for sure.

She’s the boss — she’s the boss of the women’s game. We needed this, and Iga took that role, and even if it’s not easy every day she handles it. I know how hard it is, so really I admire and her respect her a lot.”

Perhaps expectedly, Henin’s reservations about an aesthetic appreciation for Swiatek’s game come from the belief in wanting to create, that defined her own. It wasn’t just her single-handed backhand and its appropriately singular beauty; she would destroy players with geometry and angles and lacerating finesse.

“What I like is a bit of variation,” she said.

“I like a little bit more drop shots, more slices, more variations. But the game is more (than aesthetics), and the player, the reasons why I can admire and appreciate a player are much more also.

“We don’t talk enough about the way she moves on the court — it’s so impressive, and technique is much more than just the upper body, it’s also about how you move the legs and the intensity.

“Our games are different — I was using different kind of aspects. She’s probably much more aggressive in every shot than I could be.

Henin Clay scaled

Justine Henin preparing to unfurl a trademark backhand. (Thomas Coex / AFP via Getty Images)

One of Henin’s favourite players to watch just so happens to be Swiatek’s opponent on Saturday, who at 5ft 4in is even shorter than the Belgian.

Paolini, competing in her first Grand Slam final, also finds a way to compensate for many of her opponents having greater power.

“I like her aggressive forehand, the trajectory also — the way she plays on clay,” Henin said.

“She really plays the game, trying to use all the court, a very smart player. I like when a player is using the zone in different kinds of ways, really using the surface. Using the whole court, not just hitting the ball so hard.”

Henin also cites last year’s runner-up, the currently injured Karolina Muchova as a player she likes to watch, and adds: “I like different kinds of games — it’s interesting having different kinds of approaches and sizes between the players.”

It was Swiatek, of course, who beat Muchova last year, in a circumstantial vendetta against Henin’s tastes.

Swiatek Gauff scaled

Iga Swiatek is vying to match Henin’s feat of three consecutive French Open titles. (Robert Prange / Getty Images)

Saturday’s final should provide that difference in the match-up, and if Swiatek wins to equal Henin’s Roland Garros tally then there will inevitably be questions of how many French Opens she could go on to win. “It’s always hard… did we say how many would Rafa win? OK he’s unique, but even when he won three we couldn’t say he would win 14,” Henin says.



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“If she remains healthy and stable and motivated, then who knows? But we know how hard it is… We have examples of players with longer careers and keep winning for years, like Roger (Federer) and Rafa and Serena (Williams). Will it be the same right now? Will it be possible for players?”

For every outlier like those three, there are players such as Henin and Ash Barty who retired young. And then plenty of players somewhere in between.

“The way Iga’s focused and invested in her career, we have something special – we can feel it,” Henin continues. “It’s all about that. If she keeps that motivation, I mean we never know who can come on the tour… maybe there’s a young player who can come on the tour and play on clay. But the way she’s playing she can win a lot more, depending on her motivation over the few years.”

Does Henin think about the additional French Opens she could have won? “I chose to step back to my personal life, but probably on clay I would have had the possibility to keep the same impact. It was really the surface I felt good on.”

Henin doesn’t rule out coaching a player in the future, but for now her focus is on her children and her academy. Not on Saturday, when she will be fixated, like the rest of the tennis world, on her heir apparent as the queen of clay — Iga Swiatek, the boss of the women’s game.

(Top photo: Liewig Christian / Corbis via Getty Images)

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