Thursday, May 15, 2008

Into the Good Night

She should never have been what she turned out to be. Luckily for the tennis world, size didn't matter. But who could have guessed the dimensions of the heart and fight that turned out to reside inside the five-foot-five and three-quarter inch body of Justine Henin?

La Petit Taureau. The Little Bull. Yesterday's stunning retirement announcement from the seven-time grand slam-winning Belgian secured her place in history, as she defied convention one final time by becoming the only woman to walk away from the sport while still positioned atop the singles rankings. After having overcome her physical disadvantages to become the WTA tour's dominant figure over the last half-decade, the 25-year old said that the decision had been brewing inside her since the end of last season, and that the difficulty she had finding the desire to do even the simple things necessary (such as just packing her suitcase) to maintain her prominent position in the game made her choice to call it a career an easy one. In the end, it was a familiar case of emotional burn out.

"I felt, deep inside, something was getting out of my grasp," she said. "I decided to stop fooling myself and accept it."

Was Wednesday's declaration stunning? Of course. Was it totally shocking? Well, not exactly. It's never felt like we were getting all of the "old" Henin in the opening weeks of the '08 season. Still, even a less-committed version of herself managed to win two titles and 80% of her twenty matches.

A day later, maybe the fact that Henin will never patrol another baseline again hasn't quite sunk in. It likely won't fully until Roland Garros begins less than two weeks from now without its four-time, three-time defending champ in attendance. The full impact of her absence will surely be great news for the rest of the field. Suddenly, it'll be any woman's tournament to win. A new reigning champion will be crowned in Paris in June, but the "Queen of Clay"will be nowhere in sight... the memory of her exploits already beginning the process of fading from memory. Athletic careers are forever fleeting. "Old" becomes "young" in the blink of an eye once one phase of an athlete's life ends and another begins (imagine going from a "worn out veteran" to a barely-out-of-college aged young woman of 25 just by concluding a press conference). She'll turn 26 on June 1, just as the second week of play begins at Roland Garros. Needless to say, it'll provide a jarring moment of reflection, wherever Henin may geographically find herself that day.

But as an athlete's "real" life moves forward, so does the game she leaves behind. But before that happens, it'd be proper to recognize that we just witnessed one of the more remarkable careers in tennis history.

In an era when power tennis ruled, when Steffi Graf and Monica Seles altered the direction of the sport, the Williams sisters revolutionized the game and the likes of Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic (who'll fittingly immediately do battle for Henin's vacated #1 position) ushered in a generation of players whose only memory is of "big babe" tennis, "little babe" Henin made it impossible for other supposedly "physically overmatched" players (hello, Swiss Miss) to have a ready excuse for a lack of success. By any right of human evolution, Henin should have been anything but the most steadily accomplished player of her generation. But, pound for pound, no player got as much power from her shots or consistently excellent results as the diminutive Belgian.

Surely, natural talent had a great deal to do with Henin's success. But it was her single-minded desire and focus, sometimes to the detriment of her reputation outside of a close clique that sometimes seemed to begin and end with her coach since the age of 14, Carlos Rodriguez, that set Henin apart from the rest. It was what made her refuse to quit training, sometimes to the detriment to her own body, until her health compelled it. It was what made finishing second-best so distasteful, sometimes costing her fans because of a misunderstood "lack of sportsmanship." And, ultimately, it was the waning of it that cost her career the longevity that might have lifted her even higher in the pantheon of women's all-time champions.

Still, from 2003-07, Henin was arguably the dominant figure in her sport. She won seven slams, spent 117 weeks at #1, three times finished as the season-ending #1, and won 41 singles titles. She won Olympic Gold in Athens, two Year-End Championships and a Fed Cup title. Only a title at Wimbledon, where she was twice runner-up, escaped her clutches (with it she would have joined only Graf and Andre Agassi with a least one crown at every major event the sport had to offer). In 2006, Henin reached the finals of all four slams, the YEC and Fed Cup. But it was the '07 season that proved to be her masterpiece: she went 63-4 (the best WTA season by win percentage in eighteen years), won ten titles (becoming the first woman to do so in ten seasons) in fourteen events (reaching at least the SF in the other four) and won two slams, including her third straight Roland Garros. Earlier this season, what turned out to be her final tour title was won in Antwerp, her first victory in her home country since she became the fifth of now six women to win their first tournament in their tour debut, which a 16-year old Henin did in Antwerp in 1999.

If this truly is the end of Henin's career and she never wakes up one day to find her competitive juices firing once again, then this wraps up the unique and surprising Belgian chapter of the WTA history book just one year after Henin's fellow Waffle, Kim Clijsters, retired at age 23 to start a family and recover from a body-battering career of grind-it-out tennis.

As it is, Henin leaves 'em wanting more. Just like Bjorn Borg, who walked away with a trail of major championships in tow at age 25 in 1981 (though he did attempt two short-lived comebacks over the next ten years), forever leaving an ellipses of "what if's" behind but never a hint or rumor of "wasted" talent in any thumbnail sketch of a Hall of Fame career.

"There are no regrets. I did everything I had to do in tennis."

Not a bad legacy. Maybe not the one many would have preferred to see her leave behind with her final act as a professional tennis player. But a life is never perfect... and no one knows that fact better than Henin herself.

Henin's road has never been easy. She's always been fighting back against SOMETHING. In her early years, there were the typical problems of a young player trying to overcome her own failures in putting away big matches. In 2004, it was the energy-sapping cytomegalovirus. In 2006, it was the absurd furor created when she retired against Amelie Mauresmo in the Australian Open final. In 2007, it was the divorce from her husband Pierre-Yves Hardenne that caused her to skip the activities in Melbourne. But all that was nothing compared to what she'd already endured... and therein lies the not-so-big secret to Henin's success.

La Petit Taureau's desire was both shaped and concentrated by the death of her mother from cancer in 1995. When Henin won her first Roland Garros title in 2003, she recalled the day eleven years earlier when her mother had taken her to Court Suzanne Lenglen. In the stands, Henin said that she'd told her mother, "'One day I'll be on that court and maybe I'll win.' And today I did.'"

Henin's career was a testament to that promise and her devotion to the notion of it, even as it caused a rift between herself and her remaining family that lasted a decade... until her brother was injured in an auto accident late last year. With her own personal life crumbling around her, Henin broke form and reached back for her family. It changed everything.

With her emotional connection to her family -- and maybe her mother -- renewed, Henin put together her masterful '07 campaign. Somewhere, one could envision her mother being more proud than ever. And when it was over, Justine was done. There was nothing left.

Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images

I wondered a year ago if "Nice Justine" would wear well. Could a player who'd spent years being inspired to fight ghosts and adversaries both real and constructed be the same player when she exchanged her "black hat" for a "white" one? Could a player who said she was "finally at peace" find the determination to be the single-minded force she'd been when she was forever striving for something that maybe even she didn't know if she'd recognize when and if she stumbled upon it? As it turned out, with nothing left to fight against, La Petit Taureau lost her fight. Without the mental edge that made her fiercely want success more than her opponents, the desire to push forward at whatever cost was gone.

The sight of the oddly "off" Henin that began this '08 season, losing early and sometimes badly, isn't the lasting image anyone would prefer of her, including Justine. I know I'll always choose to remember the damn-the-torpedoes La Petit Taureau who spat in the face of odds no matter who or what opposed her, and the thought of watching something less than that is an unpalatable one on every level. By retiring, Henin spared us the uncomfortable experience of watching her career wane, and herself the fate of not living up to her own expectations.

Who knows? Maybe one day we WILL see Henin on the court again... but maybe the effort to get there wouldn't even be worth it.

A few weeks ago, Henin surprised the citizens of Grand Place de Bruxelles by unexpectedly showing up in the city's square and playing tennis with passers-by picked from the crowd. Only she would know if that "Justine of the People" moment was her personal thank-you/farewell, characteristically cloaked in secrecy, to her fans, or a last ditch effort to recapture her lost desire. But it's impossible now not to look back at such an odd moment as anything but one or the other. Her talk last week of her post-tennis life was but another red flag that something was amiss, and that the edge she used to get her to the top may have somehow dulled. Faced with a no-win situation, her final press conference was but the "official" ritual that she had to complete.

As if often the case with misunderstood public figures who must uncomfortably live in the public eye, we were really just getting to know Henin as she was preparing to walk out the door. The glimpse was intriguing, but sadly evanescent. Her beautiful backhand now takes up residence in tennis' unofficial Louvre, next to the likes of the Graf forehand, McEnroe volley and Sampras serve... but "Justine Henin" will always retain a certain air of mystery. Thus, the aura of Henin will never disappear.

What a wonderfully strange trip it's been, too. Contrary to the current state of things at Backspin the last few years, there was no love lost for Henin at the beginning. The "wave off" against Serena Williams in Paris earlier this decade rankled Your Friendly Neighborhood Backspinner, but Henin's '03 U.S. Open run changed all that. She won me over with one match -- the epic SF win over Jennifer Capriati in New York which still rates as the most dramatic match I've ever seen, and one that stands as a monument to all that La Petit Taureau brought to the court.

Looking back, I'm so glad Henin the Player had the low-to-high experience of '07. It helped to humanize her, and erase a few of the bad feelings her win-at-all-cost actions (gamesmanship?) might have roused over the years. At least for one brilliant season, she was the one with the heart. She always had been, but was averse to showing it, and consequently was rarely given credit for it in the heat of the competition that her backstory made so important to her daily existence.

Many players in today's game fail to live up to expectations but, while conservatively giving away a half-foot height advantage to some opponents, Henin got everything out of her game and body that she could. Only the reputation she built over the course of her career makes calling her an "overachiever" sound ridiculous. She could have won quite a few more matches before she walked away, but it will never be said that La Petit Taureau left a career's worth of accomplishments unclaimed. Her career will always win that tug-of-war with history. I surely wish there was more to be seen from her, but if the same Henin that secured her spot in the Hall of Fame in Newport is truly no longer with us, maybe it's better she walk off into the good night rather than try to continue in the light of day as a shadow of her former self.

As was the case with Clijsters, Backspin HQ won't be quite the same without La Petit Taureau (though for selfishly different reasons), but it's time for her to find new hurdles to overcome and obstacles to hurdle.

Au revoir, Justine. It was swell.

NEXT: The Best of Henin


Blogger Eric said...


that was beautiful.

out of all the farewells to henin that i've read, this one was the best.

and it was just so carefully crafted, no one can dispute anything that you wrote...(unlike the one that wta put up)

and it was warm and personable...(unlike the one that bodo threw up)

man, i wish i could write like that...i'm suffering through prepping to write my personal statement and everything just sounds so contrived...not meaningful and deep...*sigh*...

back to the books...ugh

Thu May 15, 08:46:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Thank you. I much prefer being able to write something with a beginning, middle and end with a little flow to it... and that I have a little time to stare at until I can get it "right." :)

Of course, Henin provided a great deal to work with. I'm afraid those types of players are dwindling without Henin or Clijsters around. Thank goodness for Sharapova and the Williams sisters (and, on some level, the ITF-surging Dokic). Jankovic has potential, as does Petrova, but they haven't yet accomplished something grand enough to totally fill out the story.

Oh, this would be a good time to mention that there'll be a new edition of "What If" about a "future Venus Williams" going up before Wimbledon. Those things are fun to put together, too. :)

Fri May 16, 09:23:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jc valencia said...

yey! i've been waiting for the venus and petrova versions of "what if". :)

on another note, how much longer [do yu think] would amelie take before following henin into the good night?

Fri May 16, 11:40:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Ha. Venus' "What If" will go up during the first week of grass court season. :)

I had just about wrapped it up this week... then I had to stop and work on everything for Henin. :|

Mauresmo certainly could have decided to pack things in after her great '06 season and feel good about her career. She could have just given up after all her troubles last year, too. I don't think anyone would be surprised if she wrapped things up at the conclusion of this season, especially if she's planning on representing France in Beijing (not sure if she is or not).

She turns 29 in July, so it's probably a race between her and Davenport for the next big name to call it a career. During a nice interview piece on HBO with Venus last week, it was noted that Richard thinks she could be a champion until she's 34.

(Hint, hint, wink, wink for the "What If" story) :D

Sat May 17, 11:01:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Pierre said...

Great column Todd, I agree one of your best ones... I waited a few days to actually read it, have a little more perspective on the whole thing....

Mon May 19, 11:35:00 AM EDT  

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