Henin, Safin surprised they got elected to Tennis Hall of Fame

by: Brad Kallet | March 08, 2016

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The legends reflected on their illustrious careers and offered some thoughts on today's game. (AP)

On Tuesday, Justine Henin and Marat Safin were elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The pair made history by becoming the first tennis players from their respective countries to be elected to the Hall.

Both legendary champions were unique in their own ways.

Henin wasn’t physically imposing–she was listed at about 5’6” and 125 pounds in her playing days—but she was as consistent and dangerous as any woman on tour. The 33-year-old Belgian won 43 WTA singles titles and two more doubles titles, and captured seven majors from 2003-07.

Affectionately known as “Juju,” Henin won her first Slam at Roland Garros in 2003, and then won in Flushing Meadows later that year. She won the Australian Open in 2004 and the French Open again in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Her final major title came in New York in 2007.

The only Slam that eluded the talented right-hander was Wimbledon, where she lost in the final twice (to Venus Williams in 2001 and Amelie Mauresmo in 2006).

"Yeah, it's just fantastic," Henin said on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. "It's been a big surprise. It's an honor to be part of the game, of the history of the game. When you play, you don't really realize that, yeah, you're going to be part of the game forever. Now with this honor, probably I realize that a little bit more."

Safin, known as much for his personality and sense of humor as he was his brilliant tennis, made his mark when he defeated Pete Sampras in the 2000 U.S. Open final. It would be another five years before the 36-year-old Russian would win his second, and final, Slam. In 2005, the two-time Davis Cup champion topped home favorite Lleyton Hewitt in the Australian Open final.

If you’ve forgotten what a character Safin was, check out his interview with David Letterman after beating Sampras in Queens in 2000.

Safin won 15 career titles, including five ATP Masters 1000 tournaments. He retired at the end of 2009.

On the conference call, Safin admitted that he, too, is surprised he got elected. 

“It's a huge surprise actually,” he said. “First of all, it's amazing to be part of it … Most amazing [is] to be recognized that you achieved something in tennis, to have the honor to be in the Hall of Fame. It's a big thing for us … Obviously back then I would love to win much more tournaments, more Grand Slams, more things in my career. But unfortunately I had a lot of injuries, also.

“Sometimes, probably, I wasn't well‑prepared for what I was going through. I had [a] lack of experience, and slightly not the right decisions were taken.”

Safin was known for having quite a temper in his younger days. He smashed racquets and exhibited some questionable behavior at times. But despite his ups and downs, he doesn’t think he would have changed a thing, as it was all part of his development as a player and person.

“Difficult, because it wouldn't be me, otherwise, right now,” Safin said. “I'm happy with myself the way I am right now. If I would change something in my life at an early stage, I would be [a] different person, and I don't know if I would like myself right now.”

Henin, who was ranked No. 1 for 117 weeks during her illustrious career, is still very much involved in the game. The three-time year-end No. 1 recently joined world No. 14 Elina Svitolina’s coaching team.

“It's really sharing my experiences as a top player,” Henin said of working with Svitolina. “It was very different. I'm not really in the position of the coach here. It's just like trying to give my advice and share—especially also mentally and emotionally—the experience of at least a couple of important matches.

“We're also different. Something that works for one player doesn't always work for another player. You have to adapt yourself to the personality of the player. Playing and coaching and giving advice is so different.”

Both players were, as expected, asked about Maria Sharapova, who announced on Monday that she failed a drug test at the Australian Open. She’s facing up to a four-year ban from the sport.

“Well, I think it's not nice what's happening,” Henin said. “I think we all [are] a little bit sad and disappointed about the situation. It's never good for the game. It's never good for anyone, for the fans, for all the people that support the game and the sport. It's probably not good for Maria at the moment.

“…What I can just say is it's not good for the game. Rules are important, that's for sure. Rules have to be respected. That's the thing that we can say today. But I feel a little bit sad about all this.”

Safin echoed his fellow Hall of Famer’s sentiments, though he expressed belief that the five-time Grand Slam champion made an honest mistake.

“Well, like Justine said, it's not very nice—first of all for the sport, second of all for Maria,” he said. “The situation is pretty difficult. But I think you have to understand that there are a lot of technical things, new things they put on the list. It can be a technical mistake, also. But [it] depends how they take it, how they see the situation.

“I don't think it was bad intention, I guess. Well, I want to believe so … I hope everything will be solved in the near future and everybody is happy. I think it should be like this.”

Safin and Henin will be enshrined at the Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island on July 15. 

Follow Brad on Twitter @brad_kallet

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