Eight years later, and Serena Williams and Justine Henin are still looking for closure.
“Question,’’ Williams wrote on her Twitter account. “I keep hearing about an admittance to someone cheating me & lying about it after at the French open? Did she confess finally?’’
Well that “someone’’ Williams could not bring herself to name was Henin. And if Williams were truly interested in finding out if Henin had fessed up to what happened at the 2003 French Open, the infamous Hand Incident, then Williams could have just googled it. Instead, she wrote it in a question with very pointed words to her two million Twitter followers, including media members who would make those words even more public.
So this was about sending a message. For some reason, Henin did talk about it, and other controversial moments in her career, in a TV interview in Belgium. She is acknowledging wrong-doing in several things, possibly for closure, while taking a slow exit from the stage since retiring last month.
“It’s true,’’ Henin said about the Hand Incident, “that is not my best memory.’’
I’ll get into the specifics in a minute. But this is an amazing example of how a small, somewhat insignificant moment can escalate over the years, blow up into hard feelings and rivalry and probably even hatred. It all shows in the fact that both of them still feel the need to talk about it now.
In Henin’s case, I assume it has been eating at her. I wouldn’t say she cheated exactly, to use Williams’ word, but what she did was provide a shocking example of terrible sportsmanship. It would define her in several ways for the rest of her career.
In Williams’ case, I think she has let the discussion build up and re-shape the facts in her head. Henin was the one in the wrong that day, but somehow, that moment has grown over the years into something that cost Williams a major championship.
It did not. It didn’t even cost her the match with Henin. Didn’t cost her the set. Or the game.
Or even that one point.
It’s hard to see, looking at the facts, why Williams would still be worked up over this moment. I think she started the flames right after that match, and has fanned them, and gotten help with that from her fans.
Where she really was robbed was the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinals against Jennifer Capriati. That match was one terrible call after another at crucial moments. Maybe she has some peace over that one because U.S. Open officials apologized publicly to her. And that match is seen as leading to the use of electronic line callingging.
Henin had never acknowledged doing anything wrong to Williams, and sometimes you just want to hear someone admit it.
Those two moments surely added to her distrust regarding the 2009 U.S. Open, when she foot-faulted and then went into an f-bomb laced, threatening tirade against the line judge who called it. The buzz and talk about that has swirled in Williams’ head, too, changing truth. She did footfault that day – I was sitting right behind the line judge and saw it even before the call was made – yet she now says she was right about that moment.
She demands that Henin admit what she did, but won’t admit to her footfault.
Anyway, to be honest, back to the Hand Incident with Henin at the 2003 French Open. It was the semifinals. They had split sets. Williams was up a break, 4-2 in the deciding set. It was 30-love, and Williams missed on her first serve. But Henin had held up her hand, signifying that she wasn’t ready to return.
Williams then wanted to hit her first serve again, which would be the normal, sportsmanlike thing. Henin’s hand, theoretically, had distracted Williams. In looking at the tape, I doubt Williams even saw that hand until after she had served.
But anyway, the chair ump said she hadn’t seen Henin’s hand up, and Henin never did admit that she had raised it.
She should have.
Game, set, match? No. Williams hardly put up almost no argument, and then simply hit her second serve on the same point. She would lose the point, and then went on to lose the match.
“Perhaps I should have said that I raised my hand,’’ Henin said this week, “even though, in honesty, I still think that it didn’t change the course of the match.’’
The interview was done in French, and has been interpreted by many English-speaking media outlets.
Henin seemed to say that the Williams sisters played games of intimidation, and that she was using the incident at the time to stand tall against Serena and show that she couldn’t be pushed around.
I suspect it wasn’t thought out like that at all. But instead, Henin just wanted to gain an edge, and figured she could get away with it. Possibly, Williams was doing the same thing in claiming that the hand had bothered her.
It’s interesting that Henin doesn’t exactly apologize, which might be closure for her, but not for Williams.
Last year, Serena played Jelena Jankovic, and was so concerned that Jankovic might think she was doing something unsportsmanlike – she was not — that when they shook hands at the net afterward, she said, “Don’t think I would do that. I’m not Justine.’’
Well, Henin has finally cleared her conscience. We’ll see if Williams can get over it, too.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch