The American and the Belgian spent the 2000s trading wins and losses, Grand Slam titles, and the No. 1 ranking back and forth. But there was one match to go.
This week, Steve Tignor looks back at five contests that made Serena Williams the greatest of all time.
Outside of Serena’s family, Justine Henin may have been the only player who qualified as a true rival to her. The American and the Belgian spent the 2000s trading wins and losses, Grand Slam titles, and the No. 1 ranking back and forth.
Henin beat Serena in the infamous “hand” semifinal at Roland Garros in 2003; Serena returned the favor with a romp at Wimbledon the next month. Henin beat Serena in three major quarterfinals in 2007, yet the following spring, Serena essentially drove Henin into her first retirement with a 6–2, 6–0 win in Miami. That left Serena up 7–6 in their head-to-head. But there was one match to go.
The 2010 Australian Open final felt like a culmination. Each woman had experienced some ups and downs, but now they both were at their best again. Serena had reclaimed the No. 1 ranking, while Henin had returned to the sport after two years away. In Melbourne, they fought their way through the draw to set up their first meeting in a Grand Slam final. Would Henin tie their head-to-head, or would Serena extend her lead?
Williams’ 12th Grand Slam singles title, earned with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 win, put her level with Billie Jean King on the all-time list—with, as it would turn out, another decade of play to come.
Before giving us the answer, the two summed up their contrasting styles over three sets. Serena battered her two-handed backhand for down-the-line winners, while Henin swept over her one-hander to create crosscourt angles. Serena won the first set in standard fashion for her, with superior serves and returns. Henin won the second in her own trademark style, by creating openings from the baseline and taking the ball on the rise; at one stage, she won 15 straight points.
When Henin earned two break points for 2–0 in the third set, Serena appeared to be teetering. Instead, she made one of the great third-set stands of her career. She held for 1–1 with two aces and a swing-volley winner. She broke with a return winner, held for 4–2 with a second serve ace, and closed with two aces and a backhand winner.
“I think we were both out there trying to prove something,” Serena said. “I think we both did at the end of the day.”
Henin proved she was back at an elite level, but Serena proved she was a step above her. When Serena fell onto her back after the final point, it felt like she had taken her closest rival’s best effort, and gone beyond it.
That feeling proved permanent. A year later, Henin would retire for good—just as Serena, at age 30, was embarking on the most productive stage of her career, one where she would leave all rivals behind.