Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bring It On

Nobody ever "retires" anymore. Certainly not a twentysomething athlete who was the best in the world in her chosen sport by the time she turned 25.

In past generations, the art of the "un-retirement" was pretty much a sporting phenomenon that existed solely in the world of professional boxing. Then came Michael Jordan. Lindsay Davenport. Brett Favre. Martina Hingis. Brett Favre. Lance Armstrong. Brett Favre. And Kim Clijsters, to name just a few. At this point, it's time to call athletic "retirements" what they are -- sabbaticals. Extended periods of leave generally used to re-charge one's "batteries," recuperate a mind and body, cleanse the proverbial soul and prepare for yet another run at potential glory. It seems more high-minded and artistic, don't you think?

Thus, into the breach steps one Justine Henin, saying "I'm really happy and deeply moved to be able to announce tonight that I'm coming back to competitive tennis."

Of course, today's official announcement in Brussels that the diminutive former #1 in the women's game was planning a full return to the WTA tour in 2010 was hardly a surprise. If, fifteen months ago, some of us didn't already half-expect this day to come in the future, then all the rumors and whispers of La Petit Taureau's revival over the past few weeks fairly well made today's announcement a pro forma act that simply crossed the final "t" and dotted the last "i."

The contract has been signed, and Queen Justine will soon once again be in the business of winning tennis titles.

First off, let's get the Clijsters question out of the way. Did the successful return of Henin's countrywoman play a part in her own comeback? "Subconsiously, it might have had an impact... but it certainly was not the most important reason," Henin said today.

Come now, did anyone really expect her to give any credit to her longtime Belgian rival, seemingly always the yin to her yang over the years? Even if Clijsters' grabbing of the spotlight with her initial return to the tour didn't stir and tug at any lingering jealously and/or feelings of superiority that Henin might have harbored when it came to the woman who often claimed more fans than Justine even if she didn't earn as many major titles through the years, the simple... well, "ease" is the only word that really fits, with which Clijsters charged back to win another U.S. Open title last week was a dead-on lock to re-light the only-simmering embers of competitive fire that Henin claimed had died out in her heart last May.

"These fifteen months have been enriching... but there is a flame that has been re-lit. I thought it had been put out forever," Henin acknowledged. Apparently, there are only so many charitable events to attend and assemble, not to mention planes to jump from, for an athlete who still has a great deal of accomplishments handily within her grasp. And that's good for us, and tennis. While Henin cited injuries as a contributing cause to her retirement, it was obvious that the most seriously drained part of her was her heart and drive. And for a player who at times played almost totally on the fuel that those two provided -- think the '03 U.S. Open, or the Athens '04 Olympics -- while becoming a seven-time slam champion, going forward without either existing at their full potential would have been a crippling endeavor. It was apparent through the first few months of 2008 that her heart simply wasn't in her craft, at least not as fully as it had been as she climbed the ladder and came to dominate the sport. That she retired just two weeks before the Roland Garros tournament that she'd loved and dominated for so long said all that needed to be said. Henin became La Petit Taureau by wielding an unyielding personality that led her to work harder than any of her competitors. For an all-or-nothing entity, not having her full heart in her actions was akin to wandering aimlessly in the desert. In some way, that made her exit easier to accept.

Apparently, she's rediscovered her oasis.

It's not just Henin who's back, either. Her father/older brother/mentor figure-in-arms, coach Carlos Rodriguez, is back, too. "The desire to win Wimbledon is one of the main reasons she's come back," he said, noting the only slam that his long-time charge has yet to win. "I'll do everything to help her do it."

As for the gang here at Backspin HQ (which consists of, well, me), this is great and exciting news. I have my "caped crusader" back (and, I suspect, that Clijsters "clean slate" is about four months away from being sullied... so win everything while you still can, Kim). While I always had a lingering feeling that this day would come, even while writing a heartfelt "goodbye" to La Petit Taureau last May, a "second life" isn't always granted. While I grudgingly admitted over the past couple months that I "sort of" missed Clijsters and was glad she'd returned, there is little doubt that the absence of Henin was something that needed some time to get used to and that her return signals a time to rejoice.

But is the driven Henin the one we'll see in Justine II? We'll see. After taking time for herself this past almost year-and-a-half, one would be correct to wonder if she can ever fully be the player who had no problem donning what I always have liked to refer to as "the black hat" again. In becoming the world #1, Henin, in stark contrast to Clijsters' standard operating procedure, showed not to be bothered by how she was perceived, or even whether or not she or her actions were "liked" by the masses. The Us vs. Them mantra was in full effect. After re-uniting with her estranged family, that began to change ever-so-slightly. I mentioned back then that there was the possibility that it might cause her to lose her "edge," and, in a way, that IS what happened. Without anything to fight against, she lost some of her fight. Has she regained it? More than year of living a life without tennis being the top priority, or even the second or third, could either reinvigorate her and her love of the game, or make it even more difficult to get back into the swing of the full-time commitment that a life on tour entails. Henin says the fire is back, and there is little choice but to take her word for it.

All eyes will be on her come January, though, looking for any hint that the Henin sequel isn't as all-consuming for the senses as the original.

There have been few things as fun to watch in this sport as Henin with her eye on the prize. If she truly HAS rediscovered her desire to dominate, then the landscape of the sport could be very, very different by this time next year (hey, if the previously "soft" Clijsters can do it, it should be a piece of cake for Justine, right?). She's still only 27, younger than either Venus or Serena... and one suspects she still might be able to get under the skin of Golden Girl Kim, too. Yep, things are about to get very interesting. Clijsters' "second career" slam win now provides an immediate target for which Henin can shoot, if only internally, and silently. And make no bones about it, the comparative success of their respective comebacks will most definitely provide a running commentary for the length of both their first full seasons back on the tour in 2010.

That being the case... bring on Melbourne, I say.

So, with that, thanks to the likes of Ana, Jelena and Dinara for ably filling in for Henin over the past year or so, casting themselves (sometimes successfully, but mostly not) as opponents to the Williams mystique that has mostly dominated the major sections of the season in between Henin's careers. They tried their best, but now they'll going to have to learn how to win in an even more treacherous environment (maybe it'll actually help them, as the pressure to succeed will be alleviated just a bit). Good luck to them.

The Queen is alive. Long live the Queen. Allez, Justine, and welcome back. May it all be even better the second time around.

All for now.


Blogger leia said...

I'm not a Justine fan - my sister is - so I was totally dreading her coming back. Mainly because that would pretty much secure that JJ will never win a Slam. However, reading your enthusiasm for Justine changed my mind a bit. I'm still not a fan but I would really, genuinely be happy to see her win Wimbledon and complete her Career Slam.

2010 is gonna be exciting, that's for sure.

Wed Sep 23, 01:42:00 AM EDT  
Blogger ZoĆ© said...

I was a huge fan of Justine, but I can't be happy with the comeback. I'm so afraid she will not win anything. It would be so dramatic and sad...

Wed Sep 23, 03:41:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Though I dislike giving him credit, I think it was Peter Bodo who, long ago, identified Justine as the tour's real drama queen. All those tired metaphors and all those vague metaphysical references to her inner workings. I think it's great that Justine is back--but I want her to play tennis, not talk about herself.

Wed Sep 23, 12:34:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, there always has been a great deal of drama wrapped up in Henin. But, with her (as with Serena, I suppose), since she won BIG titles it sort of became part of the package, and could even be said to have been something she fed on and used to help the triumphant moments become reality. It does say something that once all her familial drama evaporated, she lost her way for a bit.

With Jankovic, unfortunately, the drama sometimes acts as an entertaining substitute for what she HASN'T done.

In a perfect tennis world, the return of Henin & Clijsters and the continuted prominance of the Williams sisters would serve to inspire everyone else to up their games to new levels (totally turning all that talk about the tour's lack of "quality" on its collective head). But, well, since when has anything in tennis been "perfect?"

But I guess there's always hope.

Wed Sep 23, 07:45:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like Dubai will still organize a WTA tournament.


Thu Sep 24, 11:18:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...


Yeah, I guess we sort of knew that all the vague "threats" by the tour were really just words meant to placate critics, and little more. Once the dust settled (and the leadership reigns of the tour were passed), very little ends up changing on the Dubai front.

The next big question: Will Peer play?

Fri Sep 25, 03:01:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree with you Todd. This is disappointing.

If I'm not mistaken, Larry Scott or somebody from the WTA tour said that the tournament will be held if the organisers promise to provide a wildcard for Peer if she can't qualify by her ranking, didn't he?

Hmm.. Craybas beats Oudin 6-2 6-2 in Tokyo qualifying.

Sun Sep 27, 02:42:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Well, the way Peer is playing at the moment, she might not have to worry about qualifying by her ranking. :)

Sun Sep 27, 05:53:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hopefully but I don't think they deserve to hold a tournament...

Jennifer Capriati, it's time.

Wed Sep 30, 03:12:00 AM EDT  

Post a Comment

<< Home