Picture someone with the flair of Roger Federer and the intensity of Rafael Nadal. Make her 5’ 6” tall, hardly physically imposing—which meant nothing to her. Or maybe it meant everything, the trigger to her grand synthesis of skill and will. This was Belgian Justine Henin, speaker of three words that would become an adidas tagline: “Impossible is nothing.”
On this evening in Athens, in the semifinals of the 2004 Olympics, Henin faced Russian Anastasia Myskina, a swift baseliner who that June had won the title at Roland Garros—the first Russian woman to ever earn a singles major.
Henin had a playing style like none tennis has seen before or since. It began with the sizzling and elegant, one-handed backhand. Sculpted, shaped, loaded, looped, ripped, this was the Henin signature shot. The companion was a forehand she’d also learned to strike boldly. There was a flurry-like quality to Henin’s tennis, an ability to patrol and attack, to extricate from a corner and then charge forward, be it with a crisp drive or a sortie to net.
Over a 15-month period that began in June 2003, Henin built a Hall of Fame-worthy resume. She’d won Roland Garros that month, finished the summer with a title run at the US Open and commenced 2004 by taking the Australian Open.
Alas, Henin’s elegant play was also punctuated by an over-the-top zeal to win that occasionally manifested itself in inappropriate behavior. In Paris, versus Serena Williams in the semifinals, as Williams prepared to serve late in the third set, Henin neglected to inform the chair umpire that she was not ready to return serve. Williams double-faulted and Henin took the point. No question, this was cheating. In Melbourne, in the final against Kim Clijsters, also deep into the match, Henin intimidated the chair umpire to reverse a call.
Myskina and Henin had last played in the semis of Indian Wells. Henin had won easily, 6-1, 6-1, and then gone on to take the title. But all that took place way back in March, and in the five months since, each had marched down radically different roads.
Tennis after Indian Wells was frustrating for Henin. A virus that affected her immune system made Henin quite weak. From mid-April to mid-August, she played just two matches, surrendering her Roland Garros crown in the second round to 86th-ranked Tathiana Garbin.
In contrast, Myskina was having a career year. Healthy, fit, pounding her groundstrokes forcefully, the Russian consistently reached the later stages of tournaments. Best of all was Paris, where along the way to the title she’d beaten such notables as Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati, each in straight sets. In the final, Myskina handily beat her good friend and compatriot, Elena Dementieva, 6-1, 6-2.
In Athens, Henin won a 55-minute first set 7-5 and served for the match at 5-4 in the second. But Myskina was exceptionally tenacious. She didn’t just rally to level the match. She went on a tear, going up 5-1 in the third.
But as Myskina served for the match, the flurry commenced. Henin broke back, held, then broke again when Myskina served at 5-3.
As third set continued, Henin began to dictate in her own way. Of course there was the backhand, but the arsenal was also propelled by the forehand, the volleys and, most of all, the keen movement and court management skills that made her such a unique stylist.
Myskina would admit that she grew passive. “Justine started playing a little bit better but I just played her game,” she said. “I was too far from the baseline.”
With Myskina serving at 6-7—as there are no tiebreakers in the Olympics—Henin earned the 17th service break of the match and closed it out, 7-5, 5-7, 8-6. The final set had lasted an hour, this taxing battle taking two hours and 44 minutes.
Having rallied from the brink, Henin the next day felt exceptionally relaxed for the gold medal match, beating Amelie Mauresmo 6-3, 6-3.
Reflecting on the Olympics in 2020, Henin said, “Usually I keep my emotions for me, but there was a lot of joy. There was a lot of surprise, of sharing with the Belgian delegation. All the athletes were there. I didn’t cry, but I did sing. And I was so very, very proud. After the match and the ceremony I came back to the Village and all the athletes were waiting for me in the Belgian house and we celebrated together for an hour. Everyone was so happy and it’s just a great memory.”