Four-time champ Justine Henin is again a favorite to win the French Open, but after a 20-month sabbatical, can she dominate without the negative fuel that once fired her?
Justine Henin danced into position, raised her racket high. Spectators reached for their bags, ready to clap and leave, because it was match point and the ball was a fat pigeon dropping from the Florida sky, a routine overhead to seal a routine win in a routine first-round match. Henin planted, waited ... began her downswing. It was over. Only two people in the crowded stadium had any doubt.
The first was Henin's coach, Carlos Rodríguez, who had been fighting her all afternoon. Henin is usually the sport's gold standard when it comes to focus, but on this March Wednesday at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Rodríguez had seen his game plan against No. 90--ranked Jill Craybas—"so simple that a little kid of five can follow," he would bark at Henin later—derailed by a jarring display of brainlock. Rodríguez had urged Henin to rely on topspin, pin Craybas to the back. Instead Henin went out and catered to Craybas with short, flat ground strokes, forgetting to mix up her flat serve with a slice and, after shredding one of her gorgeous backhands down the line, throwing in four unforced errors. Finally, with Henin serving at 3--2 in the first set, Rodríguez hissed, "Slice!" and something clicked. Henin sliced and started to roll.
Outside her own camp, of course, Henin's ride to a 6--2, 5--2, 40--15 lead over a 35-year-old ham-and-egger seemed to be just another romp for a seven-time Grand Slam champion who, after ending a 20-month retirement, had taken out three top 20 opponents en route to the 2010 Australian Open final. But Craybas wasn't Rodríguez's concern; he needed to get his longtime charge prepped for the later rounds of the Sony Ericsson and the summer to come. Henin is 27, for God's sake: Does she still need to hear his angry voice before snapping into gear?
May 23, 2010
"That's how Justine functions: She has to be bad to be good," Rodríguez says. Besides, the episode spoke to a deeper problem, which made Henin the other uneasy soul in the stadium that afternoon. There's a new fragility in her play, one that now transformed a sure smash into the spectacle of an alltime great, renowned for exquisite technique, grazing the ball with a humiliating tic! and completing a classic hacker's whiff.
Henin, you see, has no idea why she's playing. "She's trying to find the way," Rodríguez says, "because she doesn't know."
Everyone sees it. Since the moment last September that Henin announced her return to pro tennis, she has seemed ... different. Once proud of a cool demeanor that kept even friends at a remove, she now jokes about her risky turn on the 2009 Belgian reality show The 12 Labors of Justine Henin, in which she tried her hand at comedy, journalism and even singing a duet with an Italian balladeer. And she'll tell anyone who asks about her transformative weeks working for UNICEF in Congo and Cambodia.
"When you come from this tennis world, the hotels—I mean, look at this place," she said, taking in her plush lobby the day after closing out her win over Craybas 6--2, 6--2. "I arrived in Africa, and there was still the war there, and the reality hit me. One day I was coming back from a refugee camp and just crying in the car. There's not one day that I don't think about that."
Physically, Henin can still beat anyone. She has reached the final in three of the six tournaments she has played since her comeback, won at Stuttgart on May 2 and climbed back into the top 20. She's a strong favorite to win the French Open, which begins on May 23. Few can match the variety of her strokes, no one moves as well on clay, and so far she's shown even more audacity on the court than the onetime little dictator who became the first player ever to retire at No. 1.
"The new Justine is coming in much more," says commentator Mary Carillo. "She tried to win the Australian Open [final] pretty much from the net, attacking off Serena Williams's serves. She wants to serve bigger than she used to, wants to return bigger. She wants to show that there's nothing small about her."
It's no shock that Henin should come off as trying to prove a point: In her earlier career she played with a singular sense of mission. If she wasn't winning in honor of the mother she lost to cancer at age 12, the 5'5" Henin was showing that she could stand in with all the big, glamorous women stalking the locker room; engaging in a national psychodrama with her Belgian archrival, Kim Clijsters; icily showing her father and two brothers, with whom she severed relations for seven years, that she didn't need family—and, after all was forgiven, that she could celebrate their reunion with her best year on the court.
When her father, Jose, first took the 13-year-old Justine to Rodríguez, the Argentine coach was not impressed by the small, slow prospect with, he said, a "terrible" forehand and a "disaster" of a serve. But two things struck him: Justine's backhand, which she already could hit with power and touch, and her grit. "You have to understand," Rodríguez says. "When she's 12, 13 years old, she's not a girl. She's a little man."
She had a younger sister, Sarah, but Justine preferred playing soccer and tennis with her two older brothers, David and Thomas. She took the court wearing floppy socks and a baggy T-shirt. Strangers at tournaments searched for her name in vain until Justine told them, "You're looking at the boys' draw."
Rodríguez insisted that she get in shape, learn how to say "hello" and "thank you" to strangers, play in a skirt. "The first six months we worked on that: skill, and a way of being," he says. "And she won all the matches."
At 17, Justine cut off all ties with Jose and her brothers in a dispute over money, control of her career and her romance with Pierre-Yves Hardenne. Rodríguez sided with Justine. When Henin and Hardenne wed in 2002, no one from her immediate family was invited.
Turmoil became her. Whenever there was controversy, such as in 2003, when Clijsters's father hinted broadly about Henin's increased "muscle mass," she drove all her anxiety into her play. Winning her first major, in 2003, on Court Central at Roland Garros—the same stadium where the 10-year-old Justine vowed to her mother that she would someday be champion—sealed half her image: tennis's Heartbreak Kid, aged beyond her years.
But the other half crystallized in the semifinals of that same French Open, when Henin held up a hand—signaling she wasn't ready—during an errant serve by Williams. Rebuffed by the umpire in her request for a replay, Williams waited in vain for Henin to own up. At match's end Williams accused Henin of "lying and fabricating."
Henin's rise to the top was speckled with other incidents of suspect behavior. There was the break point against Clijsters in the '04 Australian Open final, in which Henin signaled a ball out that was actually in. Then there was the '06 Aussie final, in which Henin, down 6--1, 2--0 to Amélie Mauresmo, retired with stomach cramps, violating the sport's tough-it-out code and denying Mauresmo the purity of winning her first Grand Slam title on match point.
In 2007 Henin withdrew from the Australian Open and began divorce proceedings against Hardenne, from whom she'd grown apart. That March a doctor, concerned about Henin's chronic asthma, pushed her to see a specialist at the hospital in Li√®ge where her mother had died. Henin hesitated, but then came a frantic text message from Sarah: David had been in a car crash and was lying in a coma in the same hospital. Justine took it as a sign.
David came to after two days, and there Justine was, nervous and grown-up. Her siblings traveled to Roland Garros to watch her play in person for the first time in eight years. Justine crushed Ana Ivanovic in the final, phoned her dad and drank champagne with her brothers and sister. "My mom would be so proud that we're together again," she said.
She lost only four matches in 2007, won the U.S. Open and finished the year No. 1. Few athletes had ever excelled for so long on a mix of such dark fuels. With four French, one Australian and two U.S. Open titles, an Olympic gold medal and 117 weeks on top, Henin had done everything the sport could ask but win Wimbledon. Now she was 25 and "at peace," she said, which for most players might be a staging area for even more success. But it felt like surrender.
"In the past my gasoline has always come from something negative," Henin says. "When I found my family back in my life, I don't know if it's the reason why I stopped [playing], but it made me ask myself the good questions. And I said, It's not going to be a fight anymore."
But if not a fight, what then? Henin entered the 2008 season stripped of all her old motivations, and soon she could barely play. Her siblings' lives suddenly made the tennis world seem unreal. Clijsters was gone, retired in May 2007 to start a family. "I was missing something," Henin says. Home wasn't a hotel room, a tennis court, a coach anymore.
Her tournaments ended in odd collapses. In Berlin's airport after losing to the mentally shaky Dinara Safina, an exhausted Henin said to Rodríguez, "What am I doing here? Enough is enough." Barely a year after Clijsters retired, Henin stopped too.
She found herself mostly alone—and didn't like the company. "I had to face myself for the first time," she says. "It was difficult. I wasn't confident anymore." She and Sarah became close, and Justine became a godmother to Sarah's daughter. Her 12 televised labors and her role as UNICEF ambassador were a challenge. But by the spring of 2009 the itch had returned; balance is nice, but, she says, "I also like the adrenaline. I need the emotions and to feel that I'm alive."
The night Roger Federer won the 2009 French Open, filling the only hole in his Grand Slam résumé, Henin didn't sleep well. She thought of Wimbledon. "I felt, I'm not done yet," she says. "Maybe I didn't fight enough."
It wasn't Clijsters's comeback that reignited her fire, Henin says, at least "not that I'm conscious about." The day after Clijsters's March 2009 announcement, however, the French newspaper L'Équipe received a call. For three months the paper had been asking in vain for an interview with Henin; suddenly she was available. "Just because she needed attention," says a longtime L'Équipe tennis writer. The day after winning last year's U.S. Open, Clijsters predicted Henin's return. A week later, the announcement came.
"Nothing's going to be the same," Henin says. "I don't want to get lost anymore in this tennis world, running after the titles and Number 1." For another top player, such a mind-set might not be fatal. But Henin's game demands an all-cylinders-firing commitment, and this year her "instability," as Rodríguez calls it, has ridden in tandem with success. After the high of winning in Stuttgart, Henin lost in the first round in Madrid.
Meanwhile the honeymoon phase of her comeback ended. After Williams lost to Jankovic in Rome in a semifinal marred by an argument over Williams's holding up a hand to stop play, Williams told Jankovic, "I would never cheat you like that" and quietly added, "I'm not Justine, you know what I mean?" Video of the muffled comment went viral.
Whether such animus, or any personal rivalry, can give Henin "gasoline" is unclear. Her relationship with Clijsters has eased; in public they speak glowingly about each other. Six months into her comeback Henin was still asking Rodríguez, "What gives sense to what I'm doing? What is my motivation?"
The day after beating Craybas she tried out an answer. "I want to live my second career differently, based on positive feelings," Henin said. "I would love to, yeah, just hold my sister in my arms after a big victory. I have new friends. I'm not this little girl who suffered a lot in the past. I grew up.
"Tomorrow's going to be 15 years since my mom passed away. In the past it would have made me so sad; I would have played for that. But now it's my own life. I want to have kids one day. Now I see where I want to go." Then Henin said that for the first time she wants to play because tennis is her passion, and "I love to hit on the ball."
She almost sounded convinced, though no point will be harder to prove. Henin knows better than most: Winning never has had much to do with love.
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Six months into her comeback, Henin still asked, "What gives sense to what I'm doing? What is my motivation?"