Justine Henin's retirement is one of the most discouraging episodes in the sport's recent history, and no one seems more crushed than Justine herself. In a recent press conference, she described her decision as a "sentence," dictated by her long-tormented elbow, and sounded as if she'd be haunted by this injury during the remaining years of her prime.
There are so many reasons to lament her absence. We'll miss her stirring rivalries with Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams, the historically pure one-handed backhand, the chance to watch her fend off the new generation of baseline blasters, and the eternal mystery of her persona.
With so many great players, the personality matched the on-court style: Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, or the shining light of today's tour, Francesca Schiavone. Occasionally you'll find a case of direct opposites -- the delightfully whimsical Monica Seles (pre-stabbing) versus the cold-hearted brutality of her game -- and Henin certainly fit into that category.
Henin's game spoke of joy and free expression, and it gave the tour a measure of all-court tradition. Navratilova once said Henin was among the very few players she'd pay to watch, "because she plays the right way." But such qualities hardly linked to the person within. From the start, Henin's family upbringing was marked by tragedy, strife, separation and distrust. So often she seemed moody or distracted during press conferences, even after a soul-satisfying victory. Her life was stressful and complicated, and it showed on her face.
I remember the words of Sports Illustrated's Scott Price, who wrote of Henin, "Few athletes ever excelled for so long on a mix of such dark fuels." And in the press conference announcing her retirement at the Australian Open, Justine said, "If there is one thing I could regret, it is that I protected myself too much and could not be closer to you. I hope you will forgive me."
Of course. Forgiveness comes easily when it comes to the truly great athletes, and Henin's life was merely troubled, not marked by criminal behavior or a lurid lifestyle. What's more difficult to forgive, on the tennis landscape, is the robotic, vision-free relationship between coach and player among young prospects. As great as Henin was, she was never going to trigger a global coaching revolution. It's almost as if her star shone too brightly.
When I raised the issue with Joel Drucker, the noted author, historian and television writer who is so highly respected in the game, he was expansive. "Justine has a style that's never been seen before," he said upon her return to the tour last year. "Her game has this odd mix, like a female Roger Federer in some ways, but an all-court player, an aggressive player. Not so much like Martina, but an aggressive baseliner who uses variety, angles, lots of different plays. She just uses the dimensions of the court much differently than any woman -- and many men -- ever have. She takes balls early, opens up the court, and can hit through the court from either wing. She also has a sort of je ne sais quoi, the sort of thing you can't teach.
"So it's not like Billie Jean, who was mostly a serve-and-volleyer, it's something different, and it has to do with her development. Justine grew up in a little tennis pond. She got to be pretty good, pretty quickly, and because of that, she didn't have to worry about winning or losing. Just play. She likes to hit that backhand angle, but sometimes she throws in a slice to get people off-balance, and she loves to rip that forehand. What's pleasing is that she likes transition. Not just defense, then offense, but something much more fluid. She'll come in behind a return with a chip charge, but not always; she just might do a rip charge, and it leaves doubt in her opponent's mind. What's she going to do next?
"I talked to Martina about it, and she agreed," said Drucker. "There's a combination of vision, style and work ethic we've never quite seen on tour. And there's a grain of genius in there, definitely."
So what was Henin's impact in the realm of youth development? None. Zero. Same as Martina's. I remember Navratilova once saying, "You'd think maybe a few kids would see a really solid serve-and-volley attack and try to play like that, but ... no. Too much work, I guess."
So many stars of recent vintage have come out of Russia, but you could summarize the breadth of their ingenuity in two or three syllables. It doesn't exist. "I strongly doubt that a Justine Henin would ever emerge from Russia or the United States, " Drucker said. "A pint-sized Justine wouldn't have been allowed to develop that whippy, one-handed backhand on her own. She's be encouraged to use two hands and become a consistent baseliner, sold down the river by coaches who instruct narrowly and parents who value the game more for money and scholarships than the intrinsic rewards of self-reliance, exercise and hard work.
"I wonder, for example, if Melanie Oudin was ever taught to serve-and-volley or chip-and-charge as an occasional tactic. I once heard a story about how Dinara Safina's mother watched Fabrice Santoro (a master of artistic shotmaking) and called his style 'anti-tennis.' This is why Justine's ascent in Belgium was the best thing that could have happened to her. She had the freedom to experiment and build a playing style that worked for her. I dare our society of results-driven parents to spend more time on sustainable, positive engagement within in the sport. And when it comes to Russia [Drucker shakes his head], "It's a shame that these hard-working players from a nation of rich literature mastered only composition."
A significant part of the tennis boom of the 1970s, well beyond the flamboyance of a McEnroe, Connors or Nastase, was the machine-like focus and efficiency of Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg, pounding opponents into submission with the two-handed backhand. The game was changed forever, and not entirely for the good.
"Those two created a model for how children would play -- and how they would be able to generate revenue from tennis," Drucker said. "Whereas before, pre-1968, the point was to be as good a player as you could be, to match the craft. Sandy Mayer told me that. You weren't going to make money from it, anyway, so you needed to have the whole toolbox and be the best player you could be. Now, with the parents, it's all about winning. They're scared when they watch someone like Henin or Roger Federer. They're intimidated, because it takes a long time to perfect that style of play, and it's sad. It's societal. Parents are too worried about their kids losing. You lost -- unacceptable. You have to win.
"So if I'm the kid, thanks to the Evert- and Borg-created models, I'll be steady, I'll have a two-handed backhand, I'll concentrate OK, and there I go. Maybe a one-handed slice. Then I'll have everything I need. I'll be 12 years old, and I'll have the tools of what it takes to be a pro, to earn my scholarship, to win. When I'm 14 or 15, presto -- I'm Lleyton Hewitt. Or Elena Dementieva.
"So to see Justine," said Drucker, "is like watching a rainbow."