Friday, January 28, 2011

Justine Henin: Free as a Bird

"If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now,
'Cause there's too many places I've got to see.
But, if I stayed here with you, now,
Things just couldn't be the same.

'Cause I'm as free as a bird now,
And this bird you can not change."

-- from "Freebird" (Lynyrd Skynrd), by Allen Collins/Ronald Vanzant

When Justine Henin announced in the fall of 2009 that she would end her nearly two-year retirement, for those of us who delighted in the joys of the Belgian's seven-slam winning career the first time around, it was cause for excitement. And hard-to-escape trepidation.

For any time an athlete thrives against perceived physical odds largely because of an intense inner drive to succeed, to prove their worth not only to themselves, but also the world at large AND the mysteriously unknown forces that push such individuals beyond the limits which many others place upon themselves, change and time to reflect can serve as the biggest tangible opponent they will ever face. Once they step out of the arena in which winning is the only thing that really matters, either by choice or by force, the environment in which they previously thrived, upon their return, is an altered one because THEY have changed. Having, even briefly, removed themselves from the single-minded pursuit to push themselves forward without thought, their former stature is "surrendered" on many levels. Most importantly of all, in their OWN MINDS, even if they are loathe to realize it. No matter how hard they try to recapture and set back into order the magical series of elements that led to their success, it is a rare bird that is able to seamlessly step back into line after all they learned and/or experienced in the interim. Inevitably, things are different.

That was certainly the case in Henin's "second career."

As a great fan of Henin, I know I was hoping for a sequel to the Belgian's ultra-succesful Hall of Fame-worthy "first time around." After a while last year, though, as uncharacteristic losses popped up that would never have occurred in the past, the hope turned to something resembling resignation that while her season-long superiority was likely a thing of the past, a "new chapter" with but a few memorable (and maybe historic) moments was now the more realistic goal. But by the time Henin injured her elbow at Wimbledon, missed six more months of action, then returned this month looking to be something even less that what she'd already proven to be in 2010 -- compared to her 1.0 form -- it was apparent that 2.0 might actually only be capable of providing a novel "epilogue" to her formerly-great career, at best, just as countrywoman Kim Clijsters was pointing toward ever-bigger and better levels of success in HER comeback, which had already dwarfed Henin's and threatened to lap it once more in short order. In the end, Henin's comeback will be but a "footnote" in the overall memory of a perfectionist who demanded excellence from herself at all costs, and usually got it. It was that very quest, born in the mind of a young girl from Belgium who'd promised her dying mother to become a tennis champion, that shaped Henin's career and made her the champion that she became in spite of a diminutive frame that often left her looking up at opponents who towered over her by more than half a foot.

As the 28-year old Henin now walks away from the sport for a second time, citing the serverity of and pain from that elbow injury she incurred in London, I know I'll miss Henin once again. But I won't miss "La Petit Taureau." In truth, Henin's alter ego, which I so often referred to in this spot over the years, never really returned to the tour along with her when she ended her first retirement. LPT ceased to exist when Henin retired on May 14, 2008. We saw brief glimpses of "her" during the comeback, but she was only a vistor who left us wishing she'd move in for a longer stay, only to be disappointed that such an arrangement simply wasn't in the cards. It's sort of why her seven months of post-retirement action felt a little like kissing your sister -- there was just something that wasn't "right" about it, and no matter how hard you tried not to, and even felt bad about yourself for thinking it, it was difficult to not wonder if it'd been best to have simply not had to experience it at all.

Ultimately, one gets the feeling that Henin, no matter what she might say now, probably could sense the same thing, for no player who demanded so much from herself before could possibly have looked back on the last year and been anywhere near satisfied with what she saw. And believing that more of the same, or worse, might be on the horizon, with a great deal more physical pain thrown in as an unhealthy reminder, was an experience that she did not want to have to live through.

"I spent the last days undergoing various medical tests and they have confirmed that my elbow has been damaged by my adventure in Australia. After my crash at Wimbledon in June, I knew it would be difficult to come back. But I had decided to keep playing and to give everything to overcome the injury. In these recent months I have rarely been spared from the pain, those last months were very hard. Time has passed, and the doubts have grown, and only return to the courts would give me answers. Not the answer I was hoping for... unfortunately. I suffered a lot the last week and every day gave me more and more pain, but I believed that my will would take the upper hand. Today, the examinations are clear and and the doctors say formally, my elbow is too fragile and hurt so that my passion and my profession at a high level cannot continue to exist." - Henin, in a statement on her website on January 26, 2011

Oh, make no mistake, Henin WAS a success story in 2010. The WTA tour named her its "Comeback Player of the Year," since any time a player sits out nearly two seasons and immediately becomes a contender upon her return, it IS reason to marvel. After her return, she went 34-9 (14-4 in slams), won two titles (Stuttgart and 's-Hertogenbosch), reached two more finals (in her first month back, in Brisbane and at the Australian Open), and five additional semifinals. She played in last year's Match of the Year (Week 1 in Brisbane, vs. Clijsters), and finished the season at #12 despite playing only the first six months of the year. They're great numbers and feats... for any player not expecting far, far, more, and knowing it was possible because she'd already done it.

As it is, things in 2.0 were never as good as they were in the first few weeks. Henin's initial adrenaline-fueled success gave reason to believe that she'd soon re-claim her previous position in the sport. But it didn't happen. Even though she twice won crowns in Europe last spring, 2.0 was pretty much all downhill after Henin left Australia. In retrospect, I guess that Brisbane loss to Clijsters, in which Henin held two match points but ultimately lost to the player she had formerly dominated in big, pressure-packed matches, should have been recognized as a sign that lightning was not going to be recaptured in a bottle. Henin ultimately went 0-3 against her countrywoman in 2.0, after having won eight of the final eleven meetings in their first careers.

One might look at that as the Tennis Gods telling Henin that she should have been content with what she HAD.

Not to belabor the point, but Clijsters' second-career success in the face of Henin's ultimate dissatisfaction, is a story of not only contrasting styles and personalities, but also an intriguing window into the pysches of two players who will forever be linked in tennis history.

In their first go-arounds, stories of Clijsters' friendliness were rampant, while Henin was consistently hounded for her perceived "black hat" unsportswomanlike actions. But it worked for Henin, as she won seven slams to Clijsters' one, and sported a 5-2 record against her in slam matches. Both retired in their mid-twenties, Clijsters while ranked #4 and Henin #1. Clijsters left and found her "bliss," got married and had a child, then buried her father before returning to the sport, suddenly no longer burdened by the prospect of her tennis career defining her life. Winning was great, but it didn't matter if she lost. Such a mindset would have been anathema to a perfectionist like Henin, but it worked wonders for Clijsters 2.0 freed her up to play tennis without the self-destructive mind games that so often thwarted her efforts in the past. Henin, who'd been married and divorced while still dominating play on tour, left after having reconnected with her estranged family, including her father, and spent her sabbatical living the life of enjoyment and freedom that she'd never been able to during her hard-driven playing days, taking up skydiving and other pursuits and essentially saying that she'd needed the break to better herself emotionally. Noting that her retirement had allowed her to become "better with (her)self," Henin noted that "another Justine" would return to achieve her dreams. In a sense, she had decided to be a little more like Clijsters.

I raised an eyebrow at the notion at the time. As it turned out, her's WAS an experiment destined to fail.

Both Belgians played in slam finals in the opening weeks of their comebacks. Clijsters won. Henin lost. Since that point, Clijsters has surged to even greater success, constructing an identity-altering Third Act to her career drama. She defended her U.S. Open title, then ended '10 by claiming the Tour Championships and has entered '11 with a bead on reclaiming the #1 ranking. Henin continually faltered in the sort of tight matches that she always won, then got hurt, and has now retired again. I wondered not that long ago if both Belgians would still be playing tennis by the end of this season, but I was thinking that Clijsters would be the one to walk away first. I was wrong because I failed to take into account how their time away had changed them, and instead held firm to the notion that a leopard could not change his or her spots.

The Belgians did. In fact, in some ways, they exchanged roles in their comeback. Clijsters became the better pressure player, while Henin often times seemed adrift on the court, and one questioned who it was she was trying to convince that she still wanted to be there. Us, or her? The time away refreshed Clijsters and made her a better player, but it "diminished" Henin. And an Henin that was no longer capable of striving for perfection just would not do.

When Henin announced her comeback, she expressed a desire to do things "differently," to be a more "open" individual while continuing to win, not the more-isolated figure who'd made a habit of rubbing opponents the wrong way. Ah, but you see, that single-minded -- some would say "selfish" -- attitude is precisely WHY Henin was so successful the first time around. Like many great athletes (basketball great Michael Jordan comes immediately to mind), Henin thrived by building obstacles to climb and, without a hint of mercy, seeing opponents as dark forces trying to prevent her from attaining her goals. With that mindset, anything within (and sometimes skirting, as Serena Williams still recalls about that "wave-off" incident in Paris oh so many years ago) the rules was fair game. That, plus working harder than anyone else, made her great. The work was the reward, and the reward was the work. La Petit Taureau had no conscious, and subsisted on pure desire.

The Justine Henin that returned to the WTA in 2010 after having lived the life of a "normal" human being did not.

Her more aggressive game was different, but so was she. Neither was a natural fit, and in nearly every tight match she played you could almost see the struggle going on both on the outside, as well as inside. Her initial expectation level was just as high as before, but she never found a way to be the same tenacious tennis player without also being the same person that she only later discovered that she no longer could be. Maybe, deep in her bones, she didn't want to be THAT Justine even if it meant that her second tennis career would never measure up to her own lofty standards.

When Henin lost in the 3rd Round in Melbourne to Svetlana Kuznetsoava in what would be her final match, I know that I didn't feel the void of her early absense. Not like before. Partly, it was because it wasn't exactly unexpected. And even if she'd managed to last longer in the tournament, there was little realistic belief that she was up to claiming an eighth slam title in the event. Partially because of the injury, but just as much because she hadn't really resembled a potential slam winner since the early weeks of her comeback. Before the season, she'd made comments about her elbow likely not being 100% for another six months or more. I noted at the time that it sounded like she was actively trying to lower expectations for her season. I still believe that, but now I wonder if she might have also been testing to see if SHE could stand looking in the mirror and not believing that she could once again be the best player in the world.

I think we got our answer a few days ago.

Maybe LPT would have suffered through the pain in her elbow in order to, at all costs, attempt to become a great champion again. But not Justine. No longer. The writing was on the wall and, no matter how high her passion still was for the game, her ability to balance it with all the other "unwanted" characteristics that SHE would need to be what she had once been had failed to coexist with who she was NOW. Maybe the two ends would NEVER have met. In fact, I'd say they would not have. Thing is, she very well may have reached the same conclusion to retire even if she'd never injured her elbow.

When Henin retired from the 2006 Australian Open final against Amelie Mauresmo because of a stomach ailment, she was assailed by many as a "quitter" and "poor sport," amongst other more outrageous claims. None of them were true, but understanding why she likely made her decision five years ago might form a natural bridge between LPT and Justine, fostering an understanding of why the announcement of the end of her career now was something that's arrival was just a matter of time. She walked away from that match because she didn't feel that she was able to perform at her best, and trying to do so and failing miserably in her own eyes was a punishment that she could not bear. It went against every perfectionist bone in her body. Unwilling to fail, she set down her racket.

I think it just happened again.

It'd already become apparent that Henin ever producing anything remotely similar to her past feats was no longer a given, and the injury only further dirtied the water. Already not mentally in the same frame of mind she needed to be to succeed on her terms, now she faced the prospect of struggling physically, as well. No longer willing to do what it would take to climb her proverbial career mountain again, and being forced to do so with physical pain that would make the feat doubly difficult, I believe that on some important level this was a case of a player being unwilling to continue to fail, and deciding to walk away with her head held high, while she still could. If she'd chosen to have further corrective surgery to continue the fight, another year-long layover would have been prescribed by her doctors. Suddenly, "difficult" became "impossible." The mountain was too tall, and Justine simply didn't have the drive -- or single-minded purpose -- that LPT had in spades. And trying to continue to force herself to look for it was no longer worth it, not if the "pot at the end of the rainbow" STILL might only mean she was playing to be second-best (or, more likely, worse). In her heart, she was still the champion of old, but her mind told her differently.

If she wasn't to be the tennis player she once could be, it was more bearable to not be a tennis player at all. Competition for competion's sake just wasn't enough for her.

Such a trait, while something that a player such as the ridiculously-commendable Francesca Schiavone would probably never fully wish to comprehend, is precisely what allowed Henin to morph into La Petit Taureau all those years ago. Without that perfection-or-nothing line of thinking, Justine Henin might just have been a pretty good player. With it, she was one of the two greatest players of her generation.

In a sense, her elbow injury offers her a convenient way out. It provides an tangible explanation for her exit, even if there might be another one more deeply rooted within her psyche. Even if she'd never admit it to be so. Thus, she's able to leave the battlefield being carried off on her shield. It is an "honorable death" of a career, with the decision to accept her final fate both more complicated and easier than it might appear on the only lightly-inspected surface.

Thankfully, Henin built a reservoir of memories the first time around. Her failed 2.0 experiment will not alter that. I know that I'll remember those back-to-back night wins at Flushing Meadows in 2003, not Brisbane. And those four winning Saturdays in Paris will come to mind often, while her ultimately career-shortening fall at the All-England Club won't at all. The Gold Medal turn in Athens while battling an energy-sapping virus will continue to hold a special place in the Henin Memory Scrapbook, too, but her final bow in Melbourne will not.

LPT might not have, but I figure that Justine would say the same.

Sure, Henin's timing of her announcement was a bit off, just prior to the final weekend of a slam. And one in which Clijsters is a prominant figure, no less. It would have been nice if she'd waited until prior to next weekend's Fed Cup play where she'd been an honored courtside supporter of the Belgian team, or maybe even announced it as her final event, allowing herself one last moment on the big stage, for old time's sake (one or two more matches were likely not going to alter the elbow's health outlook). In a way, though, the "tin ear" quality of her actions speak a bit to the self-possession that once made her the champion she was.

Actually, in retrospect, I sort of like it. It serves as one final reminder of the "black hat" champion that was LPT, leaving 'em all questioning her motives to her last breath. We might not have gotten to see much of HER in 2.0, but there is something wonderful about catching one more fleeting glimpse as she silps out the back door a final time.

At least I'm assuming it is, indeed, THE final time. There IS always the chance that, like a boxer, Henin will continue to retire and un-retire until her comings-and-goings are something akin to the flipping of the calendar every January. Plus, in the era of the comeback of Kimiko Date-Krumm, nothing is impossible. But, really, why would she bother? She and we have been down that road before... and none of us really enjoyed it all that much.

Henin is finally free. Free as a bird. Free of the burden of continuing to try to live up to her promise to her mother, or her own high standards. Free to be Justine, whoever that turns out to be. Free as a bird.

Fly, Justine. Fly.

*The Best of Henin, Part Deux* final look back at the "second time around." Probably.

May 16 - The Best of Henin

=2008 retirement=
May 15 - Into the Good Night

September 21 - To the Rescue, and Back Into the Light?
September 22 - Bring It On (comeback announcement)
November 22 - Decade's Best: Players #1/#2 - "Two for the Ages"

January 11 - Act 1, Scene 1 [2010] (Brisbane Final)
January 20 - Australian Open, Day 3: A Rolling Henin 2.0 Gathers No Moss
January 22 - Australian Open, Day 5: Belgians Wobble, But Only One Falls Down
January 24 - Australian Open, Day 7: Belgian vs. Belgian... for your entertainment
January 28 - Australian Open, Day 11: A Long Time Coming
January 30 - Australian Open Final: Real Champions Wear Combat Boots
February 2 - 2010 Dorothy Tour Awards
May 3 - Sigmund, Justine & Me (Stuttgart title)
May 22 - Roland Garros Preview: The Big Bang
May 25 - Roland Garros, Day 3: A Quantum Precursor, Pt.2
May 28 - Roland Garros, Day 6: The Core Four
May 29 - Roland Garros, Day 7: Little Bangus Interruptus
May 30 - Roland Garros, Day 8: Welcome Back to Paris, LPT
May 31 - Roland Garros, Day 9: The Big Fizzle
June 20 - Bare Bones Backspin ('s-Hertogenbosch title)
June 28 - Wimbledon, Day 7: Some Nice Moments, But Nothing to Text Your Cousin About
July 2 - Wimbledon, Day 11: To Be or Not To Be LPT, That is the Question

January 21 - Australian Open, Day 5: Down and Out Down Under
January 26 - Justine Slips Out the Back Door...again

All for now.


Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Just thought I'd add this. This is a section from the May 15, 2008 Backspin (the link is at the end of this post) that said "goodbye" to Henin the first time around. I think, considering how things played out in 2.0, it's interesting in retrospect:

"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."


Fri Jan 28, 11:44:00 PM EST  
Blogger Kumar said...

Todd, I have been reading your blog for a while now, and I confess I choked up a bit reading about how Justine had conducted herself during her first career and molded herself into a great champion. I wasn't a huge follower of hers until 2003-04, and even then, just a whiff of Justine 1.0 was enough to get me hooked. Of course, I followed her every inch of the way last season (in fact even more closely than before), but this time around, I was not as deeply affected by her retirement as in 2008.

Maybe I thought I was really letting go forever back then. Or maybe I just knew that the Justine of yore was gone forever when she mounted her comeback. Somehow, I tried to convince myself she was on the right path even in career 2.0, but your entry just put things in a different, more heroic, perspective. Maybe this is how I should remember her, and not the humiliating (but ultimately meaningless, in light of how she returned a shell of herself) losses or the myriad injuries of career 2.0.

I must say though, that as wary of the new 'kinder, gentler' persona of hers I was, all her travails over the course of last season made me really feel for her, poor thing (you get the feeling that is something LPT - useful moniker, by the way - would have scoffed at). It seemed at times like her making peace with everything in her life had somehow left her anxious and all alone on court.

Sigh... I miss her greatly, but we'll still have Paris...

Sun Jan 30, 01:46:00 AM EST  
Blogger Duncan D. Horne said...

You could say she has been unlucky with injuries, but this comeback does seem to have ended very prematurely. Is her elbow injury that serious? We never heard much about it until after she lost to Kuznetsova at this year's Aussie Open. Anyway, she has finished her career with a pretty great 7 Grand Slams, albeit without a coveted Wimbledon championship, but nevertheless, she has 7 more than most players will ever get. She was a great champion with a beauty of a backhand.

Sun Jan 30, 04:51:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Exactly. For a brief moment the other day, I toyed with the idea of presenting a slightly more cynical take on her exit at this moment in time. But I took a couple of days to reflect, and I realized that I'd quickly regret doing that.

Henin produced so many good memories the first time around, cluttering them with 2.0 questions and raised eyebrows would serve no purpose, as far as I was concerned.

As much as I'd love to see her play again one day, I hope she never changes her mind for yet another time. It just wouldn't be worth it.

Sun Jan 30, 07:45:00 PM EST  
Blogger Nina said...

In my view Henin's second career has ended up prematurely because she wanted to be too good too soon. She probably was comparing herself a lot with Clijsters. In Belgium Kim is much more popular and people often say Justine should be like her so I think that pressure got to her a lot.
I think that her changed approach would actually help her game as well if she was really trying to approach it with a different state of mind. Her coach told her to be patient and he was completely right. In her first career it took her a few years to get to her top form so in the second career that would also require some time. But she never allowed herself enough time, which finally led to the end of her career. I think in her second career she was quite insecure because she was trying to kind of find her "place" in WTA. I think time would solve this and if she avoided the injury we would be able to enjoy her rivalry with the rest of the tour for much longer.

I think it's quite a bad thing for Justine that she retired. She once said she needed tennis and tennis still very much needs her. I think that tennis helped her not just to satisfy her ambitions but also to soothe emotional problems she had in her life. I'd say she should fix her health issues and try to build something in her personal life as well to be happy. However,if she will recover and will be physically capable enough... you never know. If Date-Krumm could returen at almost forty and Schiavone won her first slam at 30 player like Justine would also give young players run for her money.

Thu Feb 10, 11:26:00 AM EST  

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