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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Justine Henin

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

For the record, I am not a fan of Justine Henin; I never have been. Yes, she was a proven tennis champion, a winner of five Grand Slams -- including three French Open titles -- entering the 2007 season. However, her vapid personality and sullen, Ivan Lendl-like court personality never made me want to break out a "Let's go HEN-in" cry and cheer her on to victory.

Her "incident" during the '03 French Open semifinal against Serena Williams, in which she refused to acknowledge raising her hand during Serena's service motion -- thus leading to a service fault on Serena's part -- nearly gave me a conniption fit.

Her decision to retire in the '06 Australian Open final after trailing Amélie Mauresmo 6-1, 2-0, simply because her tummy hurt, denying Mauresmo the glory that comes with a Grand Slam victory, was blasphemous in my book. Her cries of "Alléz!" when an opponent misses and (in my mind) feigning injuries to catch a breather would bother any tennis purist.

So, no, I've never had much love for Henin and I most certainly never thought I would mention her name in the same breath as the phrase "Sportsman of the Year."

Yet for all of her failures and past transgressions, there was something different about Justine Henin in '07. Something about her personality that was less unnerving and bothersome. Maybe it was the fact that she chose to skip this year's Australian Open to deal with a messy divorce. Maybe it was the fact that she reconciled with her estranged father and siblings, whom she had not spoken to in more than 10 years.

Or maybe it was the fact that, in the face of personal turmoil and anguish, she didn't buckle, but rather took a quick breather before putting her game into fourth gear and beating the snot out of her opponents like David over Goliath (after all, she's only 5-foot-5, compared to the 6-2 Maria Sharapova).

Whatever change happened to Henin in '07, it made her seem less like the insular, detached young woman with the bad manners on the court and more like a champion whose game I wanted to pay attention to and admire.

And admire I did. This year Henin was Federer-esque, enjoying her best season to date by going 63-4 and winning 10 titles, including two majors. That made her the first player since Martina Hingis in 1997 to record double-digit tournament victories in a season.

Her win at the French Open in June was her fourth overall at Roland Garros and third in a row. At the U.S. Open, she became the first woman to stare down and defeat both Williams sisters in a Slam before going on to win the title.

Her year-end victory at the WTA Tour Championships gave Henin her 25th straight win, improving her record to 21-1 against top-10 players in 2007 and giving her a year-end ranking of No. 1 in the world for the second straight year. Not bad for the tennis queen I loved to hate.

More than any other athlete this year, Henin made me focus less on the scowl and the 'tude and more on her achievements and spectacular play. For that alone, she is my Sportsman of the Year.

Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.

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