I was critical of what Justine Henin-Hardenne did in the Australian Open final -- pulling out of the match against Amelie Mauresmo in the second set because of stomach pains. My respect level for her disintegrated by what she did on the court as well as her stoic demeanor in the post-match news conference. I said her reputation would be tarnished forever and tennis beat writers would never let her forget this.
But, you know what? Henin-Hardenne doesn't really care what people think about her. The defending French Open champion, Henin-Hardenne is not here to win a popularity contest. From her standpoint, she probably hasn't lost much sleep over this. I'm sure she feels pretty strong that she did the right thing, although most of the tennis world would disagree strongly. Especially in a major final -- really, any time in a professional tournament -- you have an obligation to complete a match unless you are compromising your health. Stomach discomfort from anti-inflammatories does not even come close, at least in my mind, to reaching that litmus test of compromising your health.
However, this is the same tough cookie who was able to win the 2003 U.S. Open on the same day she had to play the third set of her semifinal match against Jennifer Capriati after midnight. Even though she didn't complete the Australian Open final -- which, to me, a great competitor always would finish that match and do so fighting -- she's been the best fighter the last three years in women's tennis.
The common personality trait I see is a certain stubbornness. Henin-Hardenne felt her fate in Australia was to not win that match and she didn't feel well; whereas in other finals, her fate was to battle and fight to the end.
It actually takes a pretty strong person to walk off the court -- when he or she isn't being carried off -- and to not care what the tennis world thinks. At first, I thought it wasn't professional. Now, I think it also fairly brave because I'm sure she knew she was going to get a lot of criticism. It shows her stubborn, brave side. Despite being in a major final and disappointing the entire tennis world, she just threw in the towel. In some ways it takes a lot of nerve to do that. Most of us wouldn't have the ability to do that and stand up to the criticism.
Most of us also wouldn't have the ability to do what she did at the U.S. Open, either.
I'm sure she'll hear about it at the French Open, especially if she is on the same side of the draw as Mauresmo. I would think the French writers would bring that up, and it probably won't affect her because that's her makeup. That's just how she is.
With all that said, Henin-Hardenne has to be the favorite heading into the French. You can't put someone like Nadia Petrova as your favorite, despite the spring she's had. You can't make Mauresmo your favorite, given her history at Roland Garros. To me, you go with someone who's had some form on clay and had success at the French Open before, and Henin-Hardenne's your most successful player in the last three years.
She'll be the favorite with the oddsmakers, but I'll be surprised if she's any kind of crowd favorite. She can't get the warmest of receptions in Paris -- and not just because of what she did in Australia happened against one of France's own -- because she has a track record of a couple controversial incidents on the court that have made people uncomfortable.
While I lost of respect for what she did in January, you can't forget her successes and the fact she's won four Grand Slams. When people think of Henin-Hardenne now, they really have conflicted feelings, which they might not have had before.
ESPN tennis analyst Pam Shriver won 21 singles and 112 doubles crowns, including 22 Grand Slam titles, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2002.