x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Henin has left massive void

2008 review: No player has been able to pick up the champion's mantle

Justine Henin bowed out at the top.
Justine Henin bowed out at the top.

There is a Justine Henin-shaped hole in the women's game, with no other player yet able to step up to the level the Belgian player performed at before her sudden retirement on May 14. She was the world No 1, still only 25, and favourite to retain the French Open crown - which would have been her fifth success on the clay at Roland Garros.

Instead, she chose to walk away. It was a release for her, although she was supremely talented she also worked very hard - she was famous for her backhand, but it needed hours of training to perfect - and played out her personal life in the glare of the world's media. She divorced her husband Pierre-Yves Hardenne last year, after just five years of marriage, and had fallen out of love with the game that had been her life.

"I have been driving my career based on emotion, but I did not feel that emotion any more," she said. Her departure left a void at the top of the game. Ana Ivanovic, a 20-year-old Serbian who attracts headlines more because of her looks than talent, was the first to step into the breach by triumphing in France. Where many had expected that Henin would be holding up the trophy again, instead here was a player who had grown up playing tennis in an empty swimming pool amid the wars which ravaged the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

It was a fine achievement for Ivanovic, who had been comfortably beaten by Henin in the final 12 months earlier, but she failed to build on that in the second part of the season. It meant she headed to Wimbledon as the top seed and the world No 1. But then the Williams sisters proved that, when they want to, they are a cut above the rest in the women's game. Serena and Venus love the green courts of London, and both reached the final without much trouble.

Venus, the elder of the pair, won in straight sets meaning the Williams family were celebrating after seven of the last nine Wimbledon finals, three of which pitted the sisters against each other. Their domination continued at the US Open, where only the draw prevented another family battle in the final. Serena beat her big sister in the quarter-finals before going on to lift the last slam of the year, outclassing Jelena Jankovic in the final.

Surprisingly, neither of the Williams sisters have been top of the WTA rankings this year - Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic have led that particular battle. The top spot changed hands six times, but this is as much due to the weaknesses of the pretenders than any genuine competition and because the Williams sisters struggle to motivate themselves outside the big events. Elena Dementieva won the Olympic gold in Beijing, with the Williams sisters retaining their doubles title.

lthornhill@thenational.ae