This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
Justine Henin is not only the best woman tennis player in the world at the moment. She may play one of the most well-rounded games of any champion in the sport's history. Before we go any further, however, I can't help but say that it makes me beyond crazy that none of the myriad of tennis announcers can pronounce her name correctly. They go to great lengths to get the Serbian names right--and they're not easy. Djokovic. Ivanovic. I was going to say that they do well with the Russian names as well, but the truth is they've got many of those wrong, too. They say KuznetSOVA, instead of the proper KuNETSova. They've got it SharaPOVA, instead of the correct SaRAPova. But we Americans are big on the OVA sound for Russians and even the Russians have given in to our malaprops when it comes to their names. But the butchering of Henin's name grates like fingernails down a blackboard to my ears. If you knew you were going to say the Number One player in the world's name for two weeks at a time at the US Open, and you were spending dozens of hours on all kinds of research to be on top of every reportorial detail, wouldn't you consult a French native to get this simple name Henin right?
But no, they ALL say it wrong. They put the emphasis on the first syllable and then just trail off into a vague, indistinguishable vowel. "Hene. Hene hasn't lost a set the entire tournament. Hene hits a sublime one-handed backhand." Listen up, you tennis experts. It's Henin. Emphasis on the second syllable. And the "nin" is pronounced as in cousin, voisin, tartartin. It's Henin, for God's sake.
But I do digress. Back to the tennis this 25 year-old Belgian is playing. Billie Jean King said during Saturday night's final at the US Open that Henin may be the greatest woman athlete she's ever seen. The cold, shy, dry, self-congratulatory, un-engaging personality Henin has displayed while winning seven major titles has kept fans from rising from their seats to cheer her on. Point blank, we haven't been drawn to her much and that lack of popularity has detracted from us noticing just how very impressive she is with a racquet. It's the Ivan Lendl story 30 years later. I admit it's taken me a few years, but this US Open pushed me to a state of heartfelt Justine Henin appreciation.
Height and power are de rigeur at the upper echelons of today's game. The 5'6" Martina Hingis has been applauded for her comeback, after three years in retirement, but the analysts agree that Hingis is simply too small to handle the big bruising serves of the Williams sisters. 5'10" is no longer considered tall on tour. 5'6" is a serious disability. And truth be told, Henin doesn't quite measure 5'6". She's technically 5' 5-3/4". But she has classic, powerful ground strokes, a serve that doesn't match pace with the big boomers but is effective, and foot speed that makes hitting a winner against her a rare occasion. Henin is even starting to smile occasionally and a big posse of us are at last warming up to the diminutive Belgian.
We have been soaking up the genius of World Number One Roger Federer every step of the way toward his twelve Grand Slam titles. Federer once again elegantly took the US Open and I now retract my assertion that we can't totally embrace a champion unless he has a worthy rival to push the limits of his performance. Except for the few occasions on clay against Rafael Nadal, Federer's position is analogous to Tiger's on the golf tour. If you're a golfer in this era, you walk in Tiger's shadow. If you're a top tennis player, you are experiencing the misfortune of peaking simultaneously with the finest player who has ever stepped up to the base line. But for us fans, the players' misfortune is our privilege.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images