PARIS – It’s been 13 years since Justine Henin retired from tennis, but she remains as engaged as ever.

It’s late Sunday afternoon and 10 minutes after some post-production television work, Henin bursts through a door and summons a reporter and photographer into a third-floor hallway that overlooks the grounds of Roland Garros, her happy place.

Have you ever seen otters, joyously cavorting and splashing about in a stream — utterly at one with their environment? That was Henin on clay. She was fast, with impeccable footwork, had a gorgeous one-handed backhand and, when challenged, was tougher than steel.

“I grew up on clay,” Henin says. “For me, was fun to try to find a way to create a different game on this surface. When I won the juniors, I felt the energy here was very good for me — as it is, I think, for Iga today.”

Henin had just turned 16 when she won that Roland Garros junior title in 1997. Swiatek, in three tries, never managed to lift the junior title. She reached the quarterfinals in 2016 and 2017 — suffering an ankle injury in the latter that required surgery and ended her season. In 2018, Swiatek advanced to the semifinals, losing to Caty McNally.

Few players have enjoyed the kind of success Henin has at Roland Garros. She won the title in 2003, then strung together three in a row, from 2005-07. That total of four was exceeded by only two players in the Open Era: Chris Evert (7) and Stefanie Graf (6).

But, suddenly, Swiatek — who turned 23 on the last day of May — is on the verge of equaling Henin’s mark of four titles in five years. On Thursday, Swiatek will face Coco Gauff in a highly-anticipated semifinal match.

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“I think she can win more than I won, for sure,” Henin said emphatically.

“For me, it was the dream of a little girl coming to Roland Garros. Something very special happened when it came true in 2003. So powerful it was for me, and I wanted to live this again and again and again.”

And so, she did.

The last one in 2007, culminated a remarkable streak of 21 straight match-wins at Roland Garros. The win in the final was 6-1, 6-2 against Ana Ivanovic, and it came with her three siblings attending her Grand Slam match for the first time.

“I was feeling, like, not invincible, but, yeah, maybe something like this,” Henin said, smiling.

The little girl with the dream was 10 years old when she saw Monica Seles win her third straight French Open title in 1992. Why hasn’t anyone managed a three-peat since Henin did it in 2007?

Her answer was, in a word, versatility. Henin also won the US Open in 2003 and 2007, allowing her to finish as the year-end No.1. Swiatek, she pointed out, won the hard-court US Open two years ago. Today’s power hitters, she said, don’t change their game enough to exploit the nuances of clay.

“Everyone is playing the same game they play on hard,” Henin said. “I think clay is tough for most of the girls, no? I think when you see Iga on clay, there isn’t much competition. I think we can deal with all those surfaces and not so many players can do that in a certain way.”

Henin sat in the analyst’s chair for Swiatek’s second-round match with Osaka. Swiatek was down 5-2 in the third set, saved a match point and won what Henin called the best match of the tournament and, probably, the best women’s match of the year.

Swiatek has been dominant since, defeating Marie Bouzkova 6-4, 6-2, Anastasia Potapova 6-0, 6-0 and in the quarterfinals, Marketa Vondrousova 6-0, 6-2.

Will she equal Henin’s feat of three straight?

Henin smiled and raised her index finger, as if to say, not so fast.

“Can never be sure of that,” Henin said. “I mean, I’m really impressed with [Aryna] Sabalenka, from frustration of what happened last year, really she was in position to go to the final for the first time, so her motivation, I think, will be huge.

“The 2024 final of Madrid was great, but in Rome it was different. So I believe she has big, big, big chances to go to the end. But you never know because there’s that moment of truth on the court that pushes all of us to be a little careful about our predictions.”

Henin, always elusive, doesn’t stand still for long. She works Roland Garros for French television and three months a year does commentary from Paris for Eurosport. Her children are aged 7 and 11 and she operates Club Justine N1 — “N1” in French is pronounced “Henin” — in Limelette, Belgium. Meanwhile, her foundation promotes sports for kids who are sick or have handicaps.

And while she’s reluctant to guarantee that Swiatek will win this year at Roland Garros, she sees a future that features more interactions with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

“Iga is the boss,” Henin said. “But we can see how hard it is to win and to win and to win. It’s tough to stay at the top of the game for such a long time. Iga, she has something special for this. I think she is really strong, and if she stays healthy, keeps the motivation, she can win a lot here.”


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