Serena, Henin Still Searching for Closure on Hand Incident

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 gregcouch09@aol.com. Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch

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About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

25 responses to “Serena, Henin Still Searching for Closure on Hand Incident

  • sissi

    The incident was in the french and there you come and talk about the Us open. i’m glad Henin is gone, that cheater. As expected , that sorry excuse of you is making excuses for her, what’s new?

    • Joy Martin

      well said, sissi. greg couch is lame. when serena retires I wonder how he and his ilk will make their living. never mentioned once about the booing serena endured from the crowd after she attempted to challenge it.

      • gregcouch

        Thanks for writing. But I’ll say the same thing to you that I wrote to sissi: I described it as “a shocking example of terrible sportsmanship” on her part. And I said it defined her for the rest of her career. Henin is one of the greatest players of all time, and I said that that one moment defined her? I am certainly not excusing her rotten behavior. Where do you see an excuse?

    • gregcouch

      Thanks for writing. But how did I make an excuse for Henin? I described it as “a shocking example of terrible sportsmanship” on her part. And I said it defined her for the rest of her career. Henin is one of the greatest players of all time, and I said that that one moment defined her? I am certainly not excusing her rotten behavior. Where do you see an excuse?

  • jack

    Did you even watch the match? Or did you just purposely mss out facts to make Serena look bad?

    Firstly, it’s clear that Serena saw the hand MID-MOTION and it was probably why she ended up dumping her serve in the middle of the net.

    But anyway, it wasn’t just one “insignificant” point. It was the turning point of the match.

    This incident took place on one of the biggest sporting stages in the world, in front of millions of people around the globe. Her opponent attempted to, and was allowed to get away with lying and cheating.

    Henin’s actions immediately led to well over 10k fans unanimously booing and jeering Serena for no reason whatsoever. After that, there were a load of horrible calls that Serena successfully contested. And each time she did so, she was booed for longer and louder. She left the court in tears and cried in her presser too, when has she ever cried on court?

    She probably felt like the whole world was conspiring against her. The only thing she was guilty of was winning – there are so many people who have won slams and dominated in tennis history, but were most ever treated in that way for no reason? No.

    Regardless of whether or not it was just one call, not only was it a terrible thing in the first place, but it had a huge knock-on effect. It’s so easy to sit on your sofa and criticize her for “holding a grudge” or whatever, when you didn’t experience what she did.

    The Jankovic incident only reinforces the effect it had on Serena, and the fact that it’s more than just a “grudge”. The Jankovic incident happened at 5-3 to Serena in the final set tiebreak, and Jankovic ended up winning the next four points and with them, the match. Serena was clearly rattled after Jelena took it to heart and complained so loudly. She most likely didn’t want Jelena, a player who she respects and gets on well with, to think of her as she thinks of Justine.

    • gregcouch

      So, let me ask this: What is it that you are disagreeing with me about? I say it’s possible that Serena didn’t even see it, and you think she did. I agree with everything else you wrote. Yet you seem to think your words disagree with mine in some way. In what way? It was awful what Henin did. She is one of the best players of all time, yet I wrote that her one awful moment defined her. I also agree with what you said about the Jankovic moment. And I never said the point itself was insignificant. I said that the Hand Incident was insignificant to the outcome of the match.

      • Dele

        the dissagreement is in how you ahve said it not just what you said. I read you wrote and it will seem to me that you are on the one hand saying Justine was wrong in using gamesmanship but on the other hand Serena had no right to feel anything about it. You also stated that Serena probably did not see the hane till she served not only did you came to that absurd conclusion with no evidence but then incinuated that serena tried to get a free first serve becase of it. Oh and contrary to what you wrote Serena did lose that game because of Justine’s cheat. ANd dont compare indian wells to Paris Serena will not be surprised by racism in America but being booed at RG for a wrong that was done to her ? come on. Thats why i nher press conference she said she felt violated and she was !!

  • natasha

    An even-handed, thoughtful article that puts the entire non-incident into perspective. I always look forward to reading your opinions and insights, Greg. Keep up the good work!

    Ignore the bitter Williams sisters fans, they’ve proven themselves to be the most paranoid, racist fans around.

    We’ll all be waiting with baited breath for Serena to admit that she foot-faulted and behaved like a hoodlum at the 2009 US Open.

    • gregcouch

      Thanks for writing. I guarantee you, and everyone else, that she did footfault. I was sitting next to a guy in the media seating section, lower level, about 11 rows behind the line judge. We were actually talking during the match about why players feel the need to get so close to footfaulting before serving. So we were watching for it. When she did it, we both pointed forward before the call was made. A few other media members said they saw it clearly, too. Anyway, as you said, wait with baited breath for Serena to fess up and stop questioning the professionalism of a line judge who dared to make the right call, only to have to sit there passively, scared to death, while Serena bullied her.

      • Tennis Person

        Greg,

        You are clearly a very biased individual.

        1. You completely omitted the fact that the hand incident led to Serena being booed repeatedly for the rest of the match, which certainly did have an affect on the outcome of the match.

        2. We all saw the “footfault” incident on video repeatedly ad nauseum. Whether there was an actual footfault or not is questionable. If she footfaulted it was by millimeters and not blatant. You did not clearly see a footfault and the official probably did not either.

        Time for some self examination regarding your blatant bias and inability to accurately retell these incidents.

      • gregcouch

        Thanks for writing, but you’re wrong. I did clearly see a footfault. Everyone sitting near me did. I’d say she foot-faulted by 2-3 inches. She certainly was more than halfway over that thick baseline. As to my “bias” keep in mind that I ripped Justine for the incident, not Serena.

      • Dele

        Ok so tell… why bring in the foot fault incident in this when your caption says “Serena, Henin Still Searching for Closure on Hand Incident” ? the biase as one has nothing to do with the other!!

    • Dele

      Clearly not a none incident if Justine can go on tele and talk about it or be asked about it. She has not admitted to have use sportsmanship to gain an advantage.

  • natasha

    Quote Tennis Person: “You completely omitted the fact that the hand incident led to Serena being booed repeatedly for the rest of the match, which certainly did have an affect on the outcome of the match.”

    Neither Henin, nor Serena, nor Greg Couch is responsible for the fickle behavior of tennis crowds, especially the French who are notoriously ignorant about tennis and boo anything to their hearts’ desire so that they can feel they are a part of the match.

    I seriously doubt their booing is what caused Serena to lose, otherwise she would have lost a lot more matches. She and her sister were trained to deal with hostile crowds by their father, remember? Why would the booing from this crowd be any different from the infamous booing she got in Indian Wells in 2001, a match she still won?

    I fail to see how Greg is biased in any way, he wrote one of the few fair and balanced articles about this situation.

    Serena’s fans need to take the Kool-Aid googles off and embrace facts. Justine has out-classed Serena again by admitting to her faults, something Serena will never be able to do.

  • Tennis Person

    “Neither Henin, nor Serena, nor Greg Couch is responsible for the fickle behavior of tennis crowds”

    Can you read? Did I say Greg was RESPONSIBLE for the crowd? Of course I didn’t say that.

    I said that he omitted the very important aspect of the match; namely, after the hand incident, the crowd began to boo Serena throughout the rest of the match.

    The hand incident arguably cost Serena the point as she was not allowed an additional first serve.

    And the crowd turning on Serena after Henin’s lie, certainly affected the tenor of the rest of the match.

  • Tennis Person

    “the Kool-Aid googles ”

    Natasha, I see that neither logic nor spelling are your strong suits.

    Anyway, nice rambling garbage you posted above.

    Let’s see if I can sum the nonsense you posted above up.

    1. Serena, Henin nor Greg are responsible for that French open crowd — True! Who would argue otherwise?

    2. Young Serena Williams should have been super-human and unaffected by an extremely hostile crowd and difficult circumstances because she was uh “trained” by her father to handle hostile crowds, LOL…– Of course this is an absolutely absurd argument.

    3. Justine admitting 8 years later that she cheated and lied Serena and Kim Clijsters somehow proves that she is more classy than Serena? Yeah, okay.

    There isn’t anything Serena could do to not be a villian in your eyes. Even when someone else admits to being wrong, it’s Serena’s fault.

  • Ball kid

    Americans seemed to have selective memory, and forgotten how aggressive and “in your face” Serena was at the French Open 2003 in the early rounds, particulary the 6-0 she gave Amelie Mauresmo in the quarterfinal. The crowd got behind Justine’s back simply because they didn’t want to see another hopeless match on Phillipe Chatrier. Henin did defeat Williams early in the season at Family Circle Cup in the States, so the momentum for an upset was clearly in the works. And it’s tacky for people to throw down the race card because France has a very good integration attitude. Modern France is of many races. But getting back to Serena and Justine. The crowd was a bit over the top, but that’s expected when the match was Underdog vs Top Dog; GLEE’s Kurt vs the Bully Football!

  • Tennis Person

    First of all ball kid, who said anything about race other than you?

    Secondly, Justine is from the French-speaking part of Belgium, the French Open crowd is always on her side.

    They usually are not quite so negative with her opponents though. No wonder Serena left the court in tears.

    As for race relations in France, they might not be quite as good as you allege. Probably better than the states, but that is not saying much. I am sure you do not recall the extended protests that occured throughout France a few years back related to inequalities and police profiling of non-white French citizens and immigrants.

  • iconoclastictennis

    Iit is clear that Greg’s bias reporting continues. To say Justine did not cheat is shocking! If is was not cheating what was it? Cheating is ulitimate unsportmen like behavior and as a so called sport writer how could you justify it by saying Serena foot faulted. It was clear to over 20 million people Justine rised her hand. It was clear only to two people you and the foot fault judge Serena foot faulted. And excuse me if I do not trust your assestment when it come to Serena. The point is Henin cheated. I love tennis and can still respect Justine talent and accomplishments. Bias reporting continue in tennis sport writing and other area of tennis when it comes to the Williams Sisters. I believe it is because there are nil to none black sportwriters and people being people bring their biases to work with them. Greg leave your bias at home.

  • Christopher

    Greg, I completely agree with you. I would point out, however, that there is even more to it than that. Justine was indeed one of the few players that Serena could not blow off the court at will, and she has even admitted to that frustration. I recall that after Justine beat her consecutively in the quarterfinals of the french open, wimbledon, and u.s. open (2008 I believe – preceding that with a bagel set in Miami that year), she left the u.s open court in tears. Was that over that old french open match? I rather think it was bruised ego. People always tout the sportmanship of Serena. Quite frankly this is something I can’t truthfully claim I have ever seen. Is she one of the greatest female players ever – absolutely; but so is John McEnroe. Both have similar temperments. There’s being competitive, and then there’s being vicious. I’ll close with the following that I just would just like to point out – she frequently thanks Jehovah after winning matches. To each their own, but isn’t a bit heavy handed to do that and spew venom, decade old venom, on her twitter feed? She’s always looking up to Venus – she should adopt her personality as well because she is head and shoulders above her there. I guess all the Justine haters think she cheated her way to 7 grand slam titles, 43 wta titles, and a gold medal. I find that very interesting!

  • Johnny Mesmerizer

    I saw the match and Serena Williams did not foot fault at all.

  • haloed buddha

    so, none is perfect is a fact and that leaves us with ever-debated justine v. serena…
    if i had to pick just one thing……justine had class in her tennis…serena has career…. (not saying vice-versa is false)
    i would love to have justine’s play and serena’s career….

    lets admit both are all time greats but for different reasons…and in the same breath both have some blemishes in their career let’s leave it at that…let’s be proud of their legacy than be bitter about their career blemishes….:)

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