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Whatever it takes to win

Henin's gamesmanship comes under fire from foes

Posted: Wednesday May 30, 2007 5:23PM; Updated: Wednesday May 30, 2007 5:23PM
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Three-time French champ Justine Henin has the game to dominate, but has been criticized by what many call less-than-fair tactics.
Three-time French champ Justine Henin has the game to dominate, but has been criticized by what many call less-than-fair tactics.
Bob Martin/SI

This was last September, just after Justine Henin had enraged yet another opponent. She was sitting in the player's lounge at the 2006 U.S. Open, speaking of the time when she had a chance to meet her childhood idol, Steffi Graf. The two women had happened to be on the same flight to somewhere.

Henin had established herself as a tour force by then, had known Graf was on the plane but, she said, "I never go and say hi." Three months later, Henin finally got up her courage at an Adidas meeting in Orlando. She told Graf how scared she had been.

"I was feeling shy and feeling [like] the little girl who see her at the French Open," Henin said. "It was very emotional for me; she couldn't believe how impressed [I was]. She said, 'You are crazy, you should have come.' But every time I see her now, it's still the same feeling. I'm very intimidated by who she is. I feel like the same little girl."

A sweet tale. Whenever Henin speaks like that, she indeed seems smaller than she already is, tennis' Little Match Girl just tip-toeing her way through a world of overwhelming giants. But within minutes, another subject came up: On this day, Jelena Jankovic all but called Henin a fake.

Down a set and one point away from a 2-5 deficit in the second set of their U.S. Open semifinal, Henin doubled over in apparent back pain; Jankovic's stellar game collapsed after an argument with the chair umpire, and a suddenly freewheeling Henin cruised to the win.

"Not quite fair play," Jankovic fumed afterward, but when asked why such charges always seem to be thrown her way, Henin shrugged -- and transformed. The Little Match Girl disappeared, replaced by a smudge-faced gamine, switchblade tough and almost happily heartless.

"I'm not a tall girl, I'm not strong, and I win a lot of matches and a lot of titles and not a lot of people like it, I think," Henin said. "I'm fighting a lot on court, running a lot; I'm playing the kind of game that not a lot of people like. But that's OK. I'm fine with that. It makes me laugh."

Nobody on tour was much surprised by the allegation, nor will the No. 1 player's flip reaction cause any shock. Henin's cool gamesmanship has become as much a part of her tennis persona as that astonishing backhand.

It's not clear which incident offends critics most: The phantom hand Henin held up -- and, on court, didn't own up to -- during the '03 French Open semifinal against Serena Williams? The disputed break point against Kim Clijsters in the '04 Australian Open final, when Henin signaled a ball out -- and got the overrule -- that was actually in?


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