The tale of Justine Henin and Roland Garros was as epic as they come, a wire-to-wire journey of passion and loss, effort and triumph.

There’d been the childhood moment of significance. The week she turned 10, Henin attended the 1992 Roland Garros women’s singles final with her mother, Francoise. Witnessing a dramatic battle between Monica Seles and Stefanie Graf, the young Justine turned to Francoise and vowed that one day she too would compete at Roland Garros.

Alas, Francoise died three years later. “After my mother died,” Henin said years later, “it was never the same.” Her ambitions fueled even more by the promise she’d made, Henin persevered. She was a rare tennis combination—a hard worker with a flair for artistry, most eloquently revealed by her sparkling one-handed backhand. In 1997, as a wild card entrant, Henin won the Roland Garros junior title, fighting off four match points in a semifinal win over Nathalie Dechy. As Henin later said, “When I won the French Open Juniors, I knew [tennis] was going to be my job.”


Consider this day in 1999 an early signal of what was to come. The 16-year-old Belgian was ranked No. 121 in the world. Two weeks prior, in the first WTA event of her career, Henin had won the title in Antwerp. In Paris, she’d fought through the qualifying into the main draw and beaten 60th-ranked Kristina Brandi.

Now she took on the second seed, reigning US Open champion Lindsay Davenport. Though Davenport always admitted clay was her least favorite surface, she’d just won a small event on it in Madrid prior to Roland Garros. No matter what the setting, anyone who struck the ball as forcefully as Davenport was always going to be a contender.

Davenport won the first set, 6-3. But in the second, Henin’s quality of play increased significantly. Many of the shots that would eventually earn her seven major singles titles were already present—assertive forehands, sharp angles at the net and, most of all, the crisp and commanding backhand. The Belgian won the second set, 6-2 and in the third, served for the match at 5-4.


Henin won four titles in Paris. (Getty Images)

Henin won four titles in Paris. (Getty Images)

Here, though, she faltered. Davenport won that game and then captured the next two—6-3, 2-6, 7-5. “I just feel like I’m glad to be still in the tournament,” said Davenport. “It was a struggle out there.”

Said Henin, “I’m very disappointed and very pleased at the same time. I was just one game away from victory. I don’t want to do things too quickly, either. It’s not good.”

Four years later came the first of Henin’s four Roland Garros titles. The others came consecutively—a three-peat earned from 2005-2007. Henin was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2015. It’s hard to imagine any woman player who has ever quite played like her.