Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Some thoughts on Justine Henin

Most people do not remember when Justine Henin was known only as the "talented choker" on the tour. But she was. And once she overcame her fear of winning, she climbed up the rankings to become one of the greatest players of the Open era. Peter Bodo dubbed her the "Little Backhand That Could," and that sums it up pretty well, especially considering the literary ramifications.

I always thought of Henin as the most emotional of players, not because she cried or smashed her racquet, but because there generally seemed to be a dormant volcano just below her surface--a fragility that would make her especially vulnerable if any big winds blew into her life. The early loss of her mother and the conflict that ensued within her family created the tough/vulnerable duality that made Henin who she is.

We all know that Henin went with her mother to see the 1992 French Open final, and decided she wanted to play tennis--and win at Roland Garros. Then her mother died, leaving her not only heartbroken, but left to deal with a father and siblings who treated her like Cinderella and were stunned that she actually wanted to have a life. That same father and siblings now behave publicly like the character Rose Brice in Funny Girl, when she sings "Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?"--a situation I find unnerving and suspicious.

Shortly after she lost her mother, Henin teamed up with coach Carlos Rodriguez, who obviously served as a parent figure for her in some ways. Their professional relationship has lasted twelve years so far, and they have opened tennis centers in Belgium and Florida.

In 2002, Henin married Pierre Yves Hardenne, a tennis coach, and they were divorced just over four years later. The divorce, in fact, caused Henin to stay out of the 2007 Australian Open. In 2004, Henin was taken out of the tour for several months by a debilitating Cytomegalovirus virus, though she did manage to make it to the Athens Olympic Games and win a gold medal.

When Henin returned to the tour after recovering from the virus, she cut down on her tournament commitments and changed her workout methods. Both of these decisions were wise, and undoubtedly helped her stay healthier. Her serve, however, was never quite the same after the virus layoff, a phenomenon ignored by the sports press.

Once she became a top-ten player, Henin exhibited a mental and physical toughness that was extremely impressive. I will never forget the 2003 U.S. Open semifinal. Henin was cramping terribly, but continued playing. Her opponent, Jennifer Capriati, was two points from victory on eleven occasions in the three-plus-hours epic thriller, but Henin won it. After she won, Henin said she did not know if she would be healthy enough to play the final, but she was, and she defeated countrywoman Kim Clijsters in straight sets to win her first U.S. Open title.

No discussion of Justine Henin is complete without mentioning Clijsters. Henin was her countrywoman's nightmare. Clijsters ended her career 10-12 against Henin, but those losses included the finals of the 2003 French Open, the 2003 U.S. Open, the 2004 Australian Open, and the 2006 French Open.

Henin, for all her skill and savvy, was not a stranger to controversy. On more than one occasion, her court behavior was perceived as dishonest, and--in my opinion--her defenders have had to make several twists and turns to justify some of the things she did. Her childhood companion and opponent, Clijsters--who is not given to saying negative things about anyone--once remarked that cutting some ethical corners was typical behavior for Henin.

Then there was the 2006 Australian Open final, in which she retired early in the second set against Amelie Mauresmo, thereby denying Mauresomo the joy of hearing "Game, set, match!" at the end of a major. Henin said she was suffering from a stomach problem, though earlier, she had said she was feeling better than ever. And many people could not erase the image of Henin's cramping through that 2003 U.S. Open win over Capriati.

It was at this point that Peter Bodo began calling Henin the "Little Backhand That Quit." I decided to cut Henin a bit of slack, since I knew that--post-virus--she was afraid to take any health risks. But as a die-hard Mauresmo fan, I never quite got over seeing Mauresmo sitting on a bench consoling Henin when she should have been falling to her knees and hearing the roar of the crowd.

Though I was never an emotional fan of Henin's, I was often blown away by her tennis. Her fluidity, her movement, her anticipation, her wide array of shot-making, and--of course--her backhand--are elegant, powerful and deadly accurate. She is a relatively small woman with a huge game. She can volley superbly, and she can also hold her own at the baseline.

Sadly, Jelena Jankovic, whom Henin has defeated in all nine matches they have played (though some of them were squeakers, and the most important one involved a mental meltdown from a clearly leading Jankovic), will never have a chance to beat her. I was fortunate to be in the stands the day that one of my very favorite players, Patty Schnyder, beat Henin for the first and only time, though several of their matches were also close (Henin later told the press "I always knew she could beat me"). In beating Henin, Schnyder broke a 27-match streak on clay.

Henin and Serena Williams also have a long-lasting rivalry. They have played each other thirteen times, and Williams leads 7-6. Henin retires with 6-3 win record over Maria Sharapova, and an 8-5 win record over Lindsay Davenport, with the last eight wins all belonging to Henin. She also leaves with an 8-6 win record over Mauresmo (Mauresmo's wins, however, include two majors and a Sony Ericsson Championships defeat), and a 2-7 loss record against Venus Williams, though they played only one time after 2003, and Henin won that match.

Henin's record speaks for itself. She has won forty-one singles titles, including seven Grand Slam titles, two doubles titles, and an Olympic gold medal. In 2007 alone, she won ten titles, including two majors and the Sony Ericsson Championships. Henin was number 1 in the world for a total of 177 weeks (including a recent 61 straight weeks), and she has won too many awards to list. Notable among them was the 2003 Player of the Year award from the International Tennis Writers Association, the 2008 Laureus Sportswoman of the Year award, and Belgium's Great Cross of the Order of the Crown.

In retiring, Henin says that she no longer feels the emotion that has driven her all these years--that 2007 served as a complete fulfillment for her. Needless to say, some fans are not buying that explanation, but we will probably never know whether it is the whole story. Henin has sometimes taken criticism for being private and mysterious, but her protection of her privacy is one of the things I do admire about her.

I am a bit surprised at my own level of sadness over this news. I do not feel the devotion to Henin that her fans do, though I certainly understand that emotion. I feel sad on behalf of Henin's fans; I have seen more than one of my favorites retire. The suddenness of the announcement also makes it difficult for people to process the news.

My own sadness comes because I think Henin is such an incredible athlete, both mentally and physically, and I can't believe I won't see her play again. I also wanted her to have her career Slam, and never thought she would retire without winning Wimbledon. Hers is one of the most beautiful games I have ever seen, and there will never be anyone else on the tour quite like her.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind, perceptive and beautifully written remarks about Henin, Diane. I am one of those who feels a void at such a personal level today -- it is difficult to find words. I watched every televised match of Justine's I could find for the past eight years, beginning with that 2001 French Open semi she should have won (up a set and a break) over Kim. I could barely take my eyes off that magical backhand and dazzling court coverage. In recent years Justine's forehand and competitive fire amazed me as well. Her final great effort, beating Sharapova in the YEC last year, was one of the longest and finest tennis matches I ever watched. I thought that the tension drained me every bit as much as it did Henin. Alas, it seems that she took the brunt of it after all.

Farewell, Justine! Life after tennis awaits and I believe you have the character and maturity to make that life special indeed. Well done, and very well earned.

But for myself, I am not so mature. I anticipated too keenly your poignant struggles and remarkable achievements to come in this Olympic year and in future years. How I wanted to watch as you crossed swords a few more times with the wonderful Sharapova, Jankovic and Ivanovic. Now they will battle each other, but never again your breathtaking speed, brilliant creativity and of course that utterly fantastic backhand-for-the-ages. So I taste my tears -- not bitter tears but freely flowing -- and I miss you too much already.

Diane said...

You're welcome, Jen, and it was nice of you to come by and write this.

This occurrence has really dealt a blow to women's tennis, I think. I'm having trouble imagining future tournaments without Justine.