There's nothing like Paris in the springtime, they say. As these 10 epics—the 10 most memorable French Open matches of the Open Era—show, there's also nothing quite as stirring or sensation as tennis in Paris at this time of year.
Williams has had few true rivals outside of her own family, but Henin definitely qualified. The Belgian and the American split their eight matches at the major, 4-4. Of those eight, though, there’s only one that lives on in infamy.
Like controversial classics in every sport, the 2003 French Open semifinal between Serena and Henin comes with its own nickname: Say “The Hand Match” to any tennis fan and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. This contest had the kind of life-and-death drama that only seems possible in Paris, when there’s a fraught and furious crowd whipping up a storm of boos and whistles from above, and doing their best to sway the result.
When Williams stepped to the line to serve at 4-2, 30-0 in the third set against Henin, those boos and whistles swirled all around her. But she still seemed to be well on her way to her 34th straight win at a Grand Slam event—the 21-year-old American was, in most people’s eyes, all but unbeatable. Four months earlier at the Australian Open, Williams had completed her first “Serena Slam” by winning her fourth straight major title. Over the previous two weeks at Roland Garros, she hadn’t dropped a set in five matches. With each win—and especially with her 6-2, 6-1 trouncing of home favorite Amelie Mauresmo in the quarterfinals—talk of a calendar-year Serena Slam grew louder.
Seeded fourth, Henin had yet to win a major title, but she had reached the Wimbledon final two years earlier and had recorded a straight-set win over Serena on green clay in Charleston that spring. With her mix of speed and shotmaking, Henin was too talented not to challenge Serena at a Slam at some point. The French Open, played on Henin’s favorite surface, was the logical place for it to happen. With a boisterous crowd of Belgians behind her, Henin took the initiative early, kept the ball bouncing high and out of Serena’s strike zone, and won the first set quickly.
WATCH—Justine Henin defeats Serena Williams in the 2003 French Open semifinals:
Serena—perhaps recognizing a future rival when she saw one, the same way Steffi Graf had recognized a future rival in Monica Seles on this same court more than a decade earlier—rose to Henin’s challenge. With a combination of powerful backhands, she broke Henin to win the second set. By the time Serena took the balls to serve at 4-2 in the third, the Belgian was starting to lose hope.
“At that point, I was really beginning to doubt whether I could win,” Henin said later.
At 15-0, Serena saw one of Henin’s shots land long, so she stopped the point and circled the mark. This drew a fresh set of boos and whistles from the audience. Chair umpire Jorge Dias confirmed that the ball was out, but the whistles didn’t stop. Ignoring them, Serena served and missed. Now it was her turn to argue with Dias. As she was serving, Serena had seen Henin hold her left hand up, to try to get her to delay until the crowd quieted.
But Dias hadn’t seen Henin do it, and Henin was unwilling to admit to it when Dias looked in her direction. Serena was forced to serve a second ball, she lost the point on a forehand error, and she she was eventually broken. Each of her subsequent misses was greeted with derisive applause from the crowd. When Williams finally walked off in defeat five games later, she was booed.
“I was a little disappointed with her,” Williams said of Henin. “I probably still should have won the game. It definitely didn’t turn around the match. But I think to start lying and fabricating, it’s not fair.”
“It was just a tough crowd out there today, really very tough; story of my life.”
After the match, Henin was overjoyed to have finally broken the Williams’ hammerlock on major finals.
“We proved that we can beat them,” she said of Serena and her sister Venus, “and I think that’s important for the other women, too, and I think it will give some new energy to women’s tennis.”
Two days later, Henin would rout her countrywoman Kim Clijsters for her first Slam title. She would go on to win the French Open three more times, and beat Williams three more times at the majors.
In 2011, though, Henin would express regret over how her breakthrough win came about.
“I think she saw it and was disturbed by that,” Henin said of Serena’s reaction to her hand gesture. “ So it’s true that it’s not the best memory.”
As for Serena, she would eventually shake off any bad memories she had from that semifinal in Paris. A decade later, she would make the city her second home, and make it her training base with her coach, France’s Patrick Mouratoglou. Nearly 10 years to the day after her loss in the Hand Match, with Henin now well into retirement, Serena would finally exorcise the demons from that day and win the French Open again.
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*Matches subject to change