LPT Week- "Goodbye, Hello, Goodbye... Hello?" (2008-16)
2007 had been a remarkable year in Henin's life. She and her husband of five years, Pierre-Yves Hardenne, began divorce proceedings, leading to her missing the start of the season, including the Australian Open. Her brother was involved in a serious car accident at the end of '06, leading to a reconnection between Henin and her estranged family. For the rest of the season, Henin and her father and siblings were closer than they had been in years. They even showed up to watch her play. The reunited relationships in her personal life changed Henin for the good off the court, but it was an open question what it might ultimately do to her career. While it was easy to be happy for her, I know I had reservations at the time whether or not a newly more introspective Henin could maintain the singled-minded (and, admittedly, selfish) pursuit that had made her such a great player.
For a while, the warm feelings carried over between the lines. 2007 turned into the best year of her career. She won ten titles, two more slams and finished the season at #1, then closed out the season by winning a 3:24 final over Maria Sharapova at the WTA Championships to record her 25th consecutive victory. Her overall 63-4 record is still the second-best win percentage (94%) on tour since 1995, behind only Serena Williams' 95% winning clip in 2013. In the '07 season, after already having shown a rare knack for getting under her skin over the years, Henin defeated Williams in three consecutive slam quarterfinals.
But the overall effort left her emotionally drained. Tapped out. Exhausted. Having opened herself up to all the things and feelings she'd put behind her tennis career for so long, Henin could never find the same focus again within herself to be as successful as she'd been before. In the spring of the '08 season, two weeks before the start of Roland Garros, where she was the three-time defending champ and winner in four of the previous five years, Henin unexpectedly announced her retirement at age 25, becoming the first player to ever do so while ranked #1 in the world.
Henin's absence created a power vacuum at the top of the rankings. While the Williams Sisters battled injury and/or distraction, the sport went through a period in which multiple players reached #1 without having won a slam, or who were never able to perform at their best on the big stages in the game. Sharapova seemed ready to assume the dominant role in the sport, but then nearly saw her career ended by a shoulder injury. Eventually, Serena reclaimed her spot atop the game, while Henin's fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters ended her retirement and returned as a better version of her old tennis self, making up for past disappointment by winning three slams in sixteen months.
Soon after Clijsters' first "2.0" slam win in '09, Henin announced that she, too, would stage a comeback.
The excitement level was high, and Henin flashed promise right out of the gate. She reached the finals of her first two events in Brisbane (losing to Clijsters after holding a MP) and Melbourne (falling to Serena in three sets). She'd add two singles titles to her career total in 2010, and finished the season at #12. But after her appearance in the Australian Open final, Henin failed to reach the QF at the final three slams she played. She was just not the same player as before. Not as focused, not as confident in a new game style that included a new serve and a more aggressive plan of attack which eschewed the baseline game that won her seven slams. Henin's game rarely lacked the natural flow of old, and at times you could almost see her thinking about her next move rather than simply making it. It was the difference between learning to be one of the best clutch players in the game to losing the close matches she used to always win.
At Wimbledon, the only slam Henin didn't win in her first career, she seemed to be beginning to get the hang of things at last, but then fell during her 4th Round match (vs. Clijsters, of course) injuring her elbow. It turned out to be a serious enough to hamper her ability to practice, altering her game and chances for success even more.
The end was near.
Soon after a 3rd Round loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova at the Australian Open in 2011, Henin announced that she was retiring for a second time. She cited the elbow injury as the cause, but I felt at time that it was also a convenient "back door" by which to escape what by then had been identified as a bad idea. "LPT 2" was a nice thought, but only that.
What follows is a collection of things that appeared in this space during the final act(s) of Henin's career, starting with my original tribute to her following her '08 retirement, and including her comeback announcement, my assessment of her career after listing her second (behind only Serena) during Backspin's "Players of the Decade" series in 2009, a few of her more memorable moments on the court in '10 and, finally, her second retirement.
[originally posted May 15, 2008]
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 sports(wo)manship." 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.
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 is 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.
[originally posted September 22, 2009]
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? "Subconsciously, 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.
[originally posted November 22, 2009]
"I dedicated this to my mother because when I came here with her eleven years ago I said, 'One day I'll be on that court and maybe I'll win.' And today, I did. - Henin, while addressing the crowd after winning her first Roland Garros crown in 2003, talking about her '92 presence in the stands along with her mother when Monica Seles won her third straight title in Paris. Henin's mother died in 1995. In 2007, Henin won her third straight RG championship.
No one would have ever dared to cast Justine Henin in the role of a dominant figure in the sport during a decade when "Big Babe" tennis came to the forefront. She initially arrived on tour as a slight teenager from the small nation of Belgium, with a varied game highlighted by a thing-of-beauty backhand. A baseliner by trade, she punctuated her style with a natural aggression (and surprising pop off the ground) that served to make up for her physical disadvantages against her sometimes-towering, harder-hitting opponents.
Even though it was plain from the start that she was going to be a player to be reckoned with down the line, no one could have guessed that there lurked inside her a little bull of a competitor that would make her one of the sport's all-time greats and an inspiration to many (Melanie Oudin will likely be only one of many who'll eventually list themselves as an admirer). Of course, when a player has such a larger-than-life heart, and a desire to succeed fueled by a childhood goal and the lingering pain of tragedy, physical stature hardly matters, does it?
No player held the #1 ranking for more weeks than Henin did during the 2000's (117, sixth-most all-time), nor ended as many seasons in the top spot (three times, 2003 and 2006-07, tied with Lindsay Davenport). She won more singles titles (40 of her 41 career championships) than any other woman this decade, as well. Her seven career slam singles wins were surpassed only by Serena Williams' ten over the past ten-year span, and in Henin's final full season on tour she defeated Williams in three straight slams during the '07 season. In early 2004, she was the reigning champion at three of the four slams after winning the Australian Open in January '04. A year-end Top 10er every year from 2001-07, she became the first woman to ever retire from the sport while ranked #1 when she walked away (temporarily, as it's turned out) from the game in the spring of '08.
Over the course of the decade, Henin's evolution came full circle. We saw Henin rise as a player with great promise, but suffer through early (and now largely forgotten) battles with her nerves while trying to create her own breakthrough moment. Her love 3rd set loss to Venus Williams in her first slam final at Wimbledon in 2001 proved to be a learning experience for the then-19 year old. The confidence that she was worthy just wasn't quite there. But grow confident she did.
When we were last blessed with her presence on tour, it'd become fashionable in these parts to say that the only thing that had ever been able to stop Henin was the cytomegalovirus (and she put up a grand fight against that, perhaps pulling off her career-best performance just before the viral illness forced her off the court in late '04) and her own heart, which had not coincidentally lost some of its single-minded desire to pursue her tennis dreams after she reconnected with her previously estranged family during the year before her retirement. With her off-court life having lost some of its need to prove herself, her champion's "edge" was dulled. The confidence seemed to ebb, just enough to matter. Somewhere along the line during her final months on tour, she began to lose the tight matches she'd once dominated. Not long afterward, she was gone.
Where things changed for the good for Henin on the court, though, is a little easier to pinpoint.
In the '03 Australian Open 4th Round against Lindsay Davenport, Henin experienced one of those epiphanies that often accompany the transition of a young player from a player-to-watch to an actual champion. Suffering through horrendous cramps in the Melbourne heat, Henin found herself flat on her back and in pain on the court. When she managed to rise up and win the match, she could no longer question her ability to compete at the very top levels of the sport. In that instant, she realized that her heart was indeed big enough to keep that promise to her mother, and that confidence boost is the moment that Henin has often pointed to as the moment when everything changed. She lost in the semifinals in that tournament, but she left Australia armed with everything she'd need for the remainder of her career.
By the end of the 2003 season, she'd won her first Roland Garros title and pulled off the most remarkable weekend performance in many a year at the U.S. Open, winning a cramp-and-exhaustion inducing marathon with Jennifer Capriati in the semifinals, supposedly being questionable to even play in the final the following day, then coming out the next night and seeming to be the fresher player while taking out countrywoman Kim Clijsters in straight sets. La Petit Taureau was born.
A month later, Henin moved into the #1 ranking for the very first time.
A junior champ there in 1997, Henin's special relationship with Roland Garros never relented throughout her career. Her three consecutive Roland Garros championships from 2005-07 have only been matched in the Open era by Seles' three-peat from 1990-92. In fact, from 2003-07, Henin's only loss during her four-titles-in-five-years stretch in Paris came against Tathiana Garbin in 2004 when the Belgian was suffering through the weakness associated with her illness. After the loss in May, she didn't play again until late in the summer at the Athens Olympics.
There, Henin amazingly gathered whatever energy she had left to put on a gutsy performance that, in retrospect, turned out to be the most remarkable in her career. After erasing a 5-1 3rd set deficit in the semifinals against Anastasia Myskina, she defeated Amelie Mauresmo in the Gold Medal match. After a 4th Round loss at the U.S. Open, she pulled out of all her scheduled tournaments for the rest of the season. A subsequent knee injury delayed the start of her '05 season until the following March. When she returned after a seven-month absence, she ripped through the clay season, going on a 24-match tear, winning four titles, overcoming a match point against Svetlana Kuznetsova in the 4th Round at Roland Garros before winning yet another title in Paris.
Henin's 2006 season was simply historic, and 2007 was even more impressive. In '06, she became the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1993 to reach the finals of all four slams (winning another RG) and the Season-Ending Championships (which she won after having wrapped up the year-end #1 ranking). A year later, she put away another title in Paris, as well as her second U.S. Open (becoming the first player to defeat both Williams sisters in a single slam, then win the title -- a feat matched in NYC by Clijsters in '09), winning ten of the fourteen tournaments she entered, compiling a 63-4 record (the best single-season win percentage since Graf in '89) and ending her second consecutive #1 season on a 25-match winning streak.
It was her last full season this decade. Her retirement came just two weeks before the start of her beloved Roland Garros tournament in '08, as if she couldn't bear going there without the confidence that she could put forth her best effort.
With her return to the tour now set for January 2010, Henin will set about trying to collect the one slam crown that has so far eluded her. Wimbledon. A runner-up there in a pair of three-set finals, in '01 and '06, her last visit to the All-England Club was not a good one. After leading Marion Bartoli in the semifinals by a 6-1/5-3 score, windy conditions put her off her game and she never recovered, losing to the Frenchwoman to end what had been a string of five consecutive appearances in the finals of slams in which she'd participated. With the resurgent Williams sisters now presiding over the lawns of SW19 like they haven't since the early seasons of the decade, Henin's quest won't be an easy one to pull off.
But, of course, when have long odds stopped her in the past?
While Henin's story began with such heartfelt emotion, she often found herself at the center of controversy over the years. Many times seen as being unrelatable and TOO single-minded, especially in comparison to her always-ready-to-please countrywoman Clijsters, who she'd once teamed with to claim Belgium's only Fed Cup championship in '01, Henin was often cast in the black-hatted villain role during her career (even as she ironically always sported a white cap on court, and was one of the most charitable players off it). While Clijsters courted approval, Henin rarely spent much time worrying about how she was perceived, shrugging off the criticism from many corners (including here) when she refused to admit waving off a serve in a match against Serena Williams, and being the focus of many mini-rants about her "unsports(wo)manlike gamesmanship" that was sometimes "disrespectful to the game" (that one came from Clijsters herself, as Henin has traditionally been one of the few who've been able to bring the Belgian to the edge of being something other than "Nice Kim"). Again, even in announcing her comeback, Henin's timing might have been considered "questionable" by some, seeing that it came just days after Clijsters' comeback victory at this year's U.S. Open, cluttering the headlines of the new champ's success with whispers and rumors, and then actual facts, about her own return to the game next season.
Of course, the biggest controversy in Henin's career came at the Australian Open in 2006, when she retired due to illness from a match she was losing to Mauresmo in the final, "robbing," in some critic's words, the Frenchwoman of a proper celebratory moment. Some even went so far overboard as to say the moment would "tarnish her career forever" (hmmm, what is it with Pam Shri-ver and Belgians, anyway?). The charges were that Henin was a sore loser, and that when she realized she was going to lose she effectively "picked up her racket and went home." As I said then, one moment in a career filled with handfuls of others when Henin gave every living ounce of energy she had to win a match, was hardly enough to besmirch anything (just as with Serena's tirade at this year's U.S. Open). And, as predicted, once Henin retired two years later, the moment was but a footnote in her biography. In fact, as soon as the Belgian was no longer around, all that criticism turned to longing for what the game lost when she retired. From all corners of the globe, the "power vacuum" on a Henin-less tour was the pet phrase rolling off everyone's tongue.
I guess people didn't know what they had until it was gone.
One day, they'll write stories about Justine Henin. I guess we should have known from the start, considering she won the very first WTA event she entered as a 16-year old in Antwerp in 1999. But, really, who am I kidding? They've already been writing stories about Henin for centuries.
Tales of an underdog making good, with anything from a slingshot to a tennis racket as a weapon of choice. Inspired by tragedy. Accomplishing goals against all odds and, while maybe not winning the hearts of ALL in the end, winning the respect that was sought from the start.
Where Henin is different is that she not only walked away on top and triumphant, but that she's now set to return to the circle of competition in an attempt to construct a just-as-successful second act to her story.
Ah, but that's a story for "The Decade's Best: 2010-19," isn't it?
[originally posted January 11, 2010]
All in all, whether it be in Brisbane, Auckland or, yes, even San Rafael, it was a good week to be a racket-wielding female tennis player from Belgium.
With U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters the top seed and Justine Henin returning from an twenty-month absence in the same event, the main focus of the WTA world in Week 1 of the 2010 season was unquestionably in Brisbane. From the start, there was the potential for an ultra-intriguing all-Belgian final, but even the most optimistic observer couldn't have expected the match that resulted when the pair did ultimately meet over the weekend.
I know the season is barely a week old, but it's safe to say we have our first nomination for the 2010 "Match of the Year." I can't remember such an occurrence happening so quickly very often, if ever, in recent years. But that's exactly what the first Clijsters/Henin meeting in three and a half years turned out to be -- a 2:30 spellbinding stemwinder that was, in a sense, four different matches rolled into one as Clijsters was able to beat back an almost shockingly resilient Henin in just the fifth match back in her comeback, surviving two match points and twice losing seemingly insurmountable leads herself before managing to finally win her first title in Australia since 2007, 6-3/4-6/7-6(6).
In rare hard-charging, walking-on-air form, Clijsters grabbed a 6-3/4-1, two-break lead, as nearly her every shot was working while Henin's serve and forehand inconsistency threatened to make her day a short one. If not for the diminutive Belgian being able to deflect a handful of break points and hold serve in several crucial moments, it would have been, too. But when Henin escaped one of her service games, then immediately broke a suddenly-unbalanced Clijsters at love, the "old Kim" that so often blinked in the face of a La Petit Taureau challenge returned. Henin reeled off eight straight games and took at 3-0 lead in the 3rd set.
Henin served at 5-3 in the deciding stanza, but was broken. At 5-4 on Clijsters' serve, Henin held two match points, with the first a setter serve that begged to be whacked for a match-claiming winner and a possibly demoralizing loss for her Belgian countrywoman. But Henin missed the shot. Her ever-present battle with her forehand mechanics raged all day, and perhaps combined with being a touch TOO eager to forcefully blow the ball past Clijsters and raise her first in triumph, she directed the return into the middle of the net. It would turn out to be her last best chance to win the match. Clijsters rebounded to hold serve there, then force a tie-break after holding in a twelfth game of the set that saw Henin creep to within one point of having a third match point.
In the tie-break, the momentum moved back and forth like the tide on an Australian beach, as everyone watching had to be trying to figure out what it all meant, if anything, for the pair beyond just being a great way to end a sterling opening week clash. Clijsters ran to a 4-0 lead in the tie-break, then was within a point of the title at 6-3. But that's when Henin came charging back again. At 6-6, it again looked again like Henin would step on Clijsters' heart. But that's when Henin's serve tipped the balance in favor of her opponent, as a double-fault (her eleventh of the match) stopped her momentum cold and gave Clijsters another match point. This time, she converted for career title #36.
Whether or not she's now going to be a "new" Kim against Henin in the future, THIS TIME she wasn't. It'll be interesting to see how her survival in Brisbane effects the rest of her season, which will be her first FULL one since 2006 (and maybe '05, considering her wrist problems in '06).
How do we judge Henin's comeback after just five matches? Well, even with expectations so high, maybe even more so from herself, it can be seen in both light and dark tones. After she defeated Nadia Petrova in the 1st Round, she said, "I feel better today than when I retired, that's for sure. Better emotionally, mentally. Better with myself, and that makes a big difference." Even after failing to win that "should-have" point on her first match point against Clijsters, and the obvious fine tuning that needs to be made to her forehand and new service motion, Henin said after the final that she “can't be disappointed, especially when you have match points. I can be proud of what I did."
Afterward, Henin pulled out of Sydney with a leg injury she said she developed during the final, but one thinks that it's simply a precautionary move to make sure she's ready for Melbourne (ask Dementieva about playing too much before Oz last year, and she hadn't been off tour for a year and a half). Obviously, while she's not fully geared-in just yet, Henin showed against Clijsters that she can still raise her game in crucial moments and push a recent slam winner to the brink just a week into her comeback. She's pretty close to being ready to challenge for everything she desires on a tennis court again. How will she look by summer? From here, pretty good. Slam-winning good.
Clijsters, too, can leave Brisbane with her head held high... with a slight caveat. Her great, adrenaline-fueled start in the final was close to as well as she's ever played, and maybe her most focused set-and-a-half in her now twenty-three career matches against Henin. But then she fell victim to nerves (or "scar tissue" from her past against Henin, as the announcer on Tennis Channel so winningly dubbed it) once again against a relatively "green" Henin, as least compared to the form she'll surely sport the remainder of the year as she becomes more battle-tested in LPT 2. Down the line, a sharper Henin won't likely squander that match point she scraped and clawed for here. Still, Clijsters will at least have the memory of Brisbane to draw upon the next time she gets into a similar tussle with her longtime rival.
Raise your hand if you want to see THAT match, as quickly as possible.
This result might not mean a change in direction of a rivalry that has mostly been dominated by Henin in all the areas that matter -- a 5-2 record in slams, and 7-4 in finals heading into Brisbane -- but at the very least it could usher in a more competitive period (think Serena vs. Venus in recent years, as opposed to their early lackluster meetings) where matches like this between the two are common.
Actually, Clijsters/Henin was the FINAL act of this Belgian-dominated tennis weekend. In a normal week, what Yanina Wickmayer did in Auckland would be more than enough to talk about. In true "in your eye" fashion, the 20-year old Waffle went to New Zealand with a Top 20 ranking and slam semifinal appearance in hand -- but not a wild card entry into the Australian Open main draw -- and won her third career title, taking out #1 seed Flavia Pennetta by an easy 6-3/6-2 score.
Wickmayer's year had already been going pretty well, as her one-year ban for violating the "whereabouts clause" was previously overturned by a Belgian court and she arrived in Auckland and immediately defended herself, pointing out that she had never failed or missed a drug test, and in fact was known to be playing in tour events during the times when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) sought to punish her for failing to report her location. It wasn't as if she was off "training" at some remote mountain site, as will surely be the case with a few Tour de France riders who come under suspicion later this year.
"I'm happy the way everything turned out," Wickmayer said. "This week will stay in my heart and soul for the rest of my life." Hopefully, her comments against the WADA ruling won't come back to haunt her should the overturning of her ban end up being flipped once again in the final stage of this battle.
Ah, but that wasn't the end of the almost-comical Belgian hegemony in Week 1. The cherry on top of the sundae came in the junior ranks, as An-Sophie Mestach won a G1 event in San Rafael. What comes next is anyone's guess.
Speaking of, if Henin had won Brisbane it'd have been hard to pick against her in Melbourne, even with the randomness of the women's draw possibly placing her unseeded self against a top player in an early round (she's already avoided a meeting with Serena, who she'd been set up to possibly meet in the early rounds in Sydney). I'll still likely be picking Serena to defend her title, but Henin (who I DID pick as RU in the AO in my pre-season picks) sure LOOKS like she's going to be a contender to win another slam in just her second tournament back. Clijsters, too. Hmm, didn't KC win a slam in her THIRD event back? Right out of the box, then, there's a chance for Henin to surpass Clijsters on that front after nearly doing so in Brisbane.
Though she might have to denote her entire career earnings to keep up with Kim in the public relations front when it comes to basking in the applause she so obviously courts when her charitable acts are announced for the first time in front of thousands of people, as occurred during the post-match ceremony this weekend. Not that I doubt the sincerity of her desire to give her prize money to the Brisbane Royal Children's Hospital, but her seemingly terminal (no pun intended, obviously) case of love-me-kiss-me-hug-me can't help but bring out the cynic not exactly hiding in the shadows when it comes to all the "look what I did, isn't it great? Now applaud." announcements at tournaments. Would she have done the same thing so publicly had Henin won the match, and would it have been looked at as a way to "show-up" the tournament champion? Interesting question, I think. But, that's an issue for another day, isn't it?
All other long-standing issues aside, if this weekend was the first salvo in a hoped-great season, 2010 might turn out to be even better than anyone ever imagined.
1. Bris F - Clijsters d. Henin
...6-3/4-6/7-6. This was the Belgian pair's first match since they met in the 2006 Wimbledon SF (Henin won 6-4/7-6), and their first hard court matchup since Toronto '05 (Clijsters 7-5/6-1). Interestingly, this one's final numbers bore a striking resemblance to their '03 Berlin meeting, when Henin won 6-4/4-6/7-5 after Clijsters failed to convert any of her three match points. Henin won Roland Garros weeks later... not that that means Clijsters is going to do the same in Melbourne.
[originally posted January 30, 2010]
- Mars Blackmon
In recent years, women's tennis has so often seemed to be all about footwear. No, I'm not talking about anyone donning a pair of red pumps or stylish flats in a photo shoot, I'm talking about having to so often watch not-quite-champion players sport "shoe-envying" games that, under pressure, display enough fundamental "don't's" that they threaten to forever cause their designer to be deemed to have "poor fashion sense" ON the court. For every Oudin-esque pair of sneakers with "Believe" on their sides, there have been seemed to be two or more pairs of lead shoes clunking around the courts of the WTA (we call those puppies "Safinas") in the late stages of the four most important events of the season.
The fact of the matter is that REAL champions where boots. Not the shiny go-go variety that Serena Williams stunned the sport with at the U.S. Open a while back, though. COMBAT boots. You know, the kind of footwear that doesn't need messages stamped on the side to remind anyone what the task at hand truly is. One look at them and any opponent knows they're in for a fight to the death. In a bit of too-good-to-be-true irony, it's Williams who owns the most intimidating pair of steel-toed head-stompers, too.
A few days ago, Victoria Azarenka wasn't up to the challenge, ever after achieving some early victories. Li Na, as well, put up an honorable fight, but one that was also a losing battle in the end. If a player is to TRULY challenge Williams, she has to be willing to slog through the rice patties of a stifling grand slam final to do it. For that, you need Justine Henin.
In an Australian Open final that pitted the two best players of the past decade (and maybe their generation) against one another for the fourteenth time, but for the first time in a grand slam final, no wry "phonies" were allowed. None showed up, either. Before the match, Henin called the match-up the "perfect challenge," while Williams dubbed it a "defining moment." Battlelines were drawn. With the women's game's two most hard-nosed, irrepressible icons facing off, with the backdrop of their past slam meetings (from the '03 "wave-off" to Henin's QF X 3 dismissing of Serena in '07) providing context, the potential for a memorable conflict was apparent.
What developed was a clash that, while maybe not a "classic," was an admirable, solid scuffle that turned on but a few key moments. All the while throughout the two-plus hour contest, while the American sought to carve out an even bigger place in history for herself by becoming the winningest AO champion of the Open Era, the Belgian, still freshly back from her twenty-month "visionquest" of a retirement (Henin was in the Congo at this time last year when Williams was wining her fourth Oz title), was doing what she's always seemingly been assigned to do -- buck the long odds against her attaining a goal that maybe even she who has always reached so high didn't TOTALLY believe was possible even a month ago. In the end, the resulting three-setter was the first women's slam final to go the distance since the 2006 Wimbledon.
As the match began, Williams immediately signaled her bad intentions with a first point ace. But Henin didn't wilt. In short order, she had two break point opportunities in a game that became an early point of order for the women's final. After a four-deuce, eight-minute game, Serena held when Henin netted a backhand. The Belgian's missed opportunity would be an overriding theme for the opening set. In Williams' second service game, a net cord bounce on Henin's second serve return gave her another break point. Williams erased it with an ace. After another long (five-deuce) game, keyed by Henin's commitment to being aggressive and stepping inside the court to take shots at Williams' second serves, the American once again managed to hold for a 2-1 lead. After again failing to secure a break, Henin soon had her first double-fault of the match to fall behind 0/30. A wide Henin forehand broke her serve at love and gave Williams a 3-1 advantage.
In the next game, Henin again jumped out to a 40/15 lead on Serena's serve. Up 40/30, Henin's backhand volley seemingly clipped a line and Williams' backhand sailed long. Henin went to her chair for the changeover thinking she'd gotten the set back on serve, but the linesperson's initial "in" call on Henin's shot had been only seconds later changed by the official to "out." A replay confirmed the "out" call, and the game went on. Williams got the game to deuce and, as Henin stood at 0-for-5 in break point opportunities, Williams held for a 4-1 lead. With the crowd at least momentarily on her side, two games later, Henin once again challenged Williams' serve. The Belgian went up 40/15, and hit a forehand winner to convert her first of seven break point chances and get the set on serve at 3-4. After both players held at love, serving at 4-5, Henin hit a second serve ace up the "T" when down 0/15, then had another ace when down 15/30. But a double-fault on the next point gave Serena a set point. Henin saved it with a big serve, but a long backhand gave Williams another shot. Henin's backhand error, a wide bounce off the net cord, handed the set to Williams at 6-4.
With Williams entering with a 40-0 record in Australian Open matches (and 163-3 in all slams) after winning the 1st set, the final result would have seemed a fait accompli at that point. But Henin wasn't about to let history get in the way of her own attempt to make it.
In the opening game of the 2nd set, Serena held serve with an ace, but Henin's continued aggression finally began to force Williams into errors. Henin broke her at love with a winner on a setter Serena volley to grab a 2-1 lead. But in the next game, Serena went up 40/15 on the Belgian's serve and gained a break when Henin netted her return of a deep Williams groundstroke. 2-2. Two games later, Henin overcame a break point to hold for 3-3 after running Serena wide to one side and hitting a winner down the line on the other. Having survived there, Henin turned the set in her favor in the next game.
Serving up 30/0, the timing on Williams' second serve was so off that the ball sailed toward the baseline and wasn't that far away from Henin's feet. Perhaps sensing a crack in Williams' line of defense, the Belgian raised her game and would lose just one point the rest of the set. She hit a stinging backhand down the line past an approaching Serena in the next point, then a well-placed corner shot forced Williams to spray a return long. After a Williams ace, Henin scrambled to make two volleys to get a break point, then her assault on a second serve forced a Serena error and gave Henin a 4-3 lead. In the next game, she held at love with three groundstroke winners and a service winner, then carried her masterful run into Williams' service game. An overhead winner. A second serve winner. Suddenly, every shot was working. Henin broke Serena at love, taking the last ten points of the set (and 15/18) while winning four straight games to win 6-3.
In the 3rd, Henin's point streak was extended to fifteen until she finally netted a return in the second game of the set. The Belgian had pushed her game to another level, and the question was whether the American was going to respond in kind. Ummm, was that really a question?
Down 15/40 at 0-1 after a failied serve-and-volley attempt, Williams pounded an ace up the service "T." Moments later, another ace held serve for 1-1. In the next game, Serena broke Henin's serve when the Belgian netted a backhand volley. But anything Serena could do, Henin tried to do better. It worked, for a moment. She went up 40/0 on Williams' serve at 1-2, then attacked a second serve and got the break with a forehand crosscourt winner. 2-2. In the proceeding game, an Henin double-fault was followed by a pulverizing backhand winner by Williams off a second serve to get a break point. A long Henin backhand put Serena up 3-2 with the third straight service break of the set.
With the championship in her sight, Wililams took her game up one more notch. This time, Henin couldn't follow.
After having an ace on game point overruled by replay, Serena promptly stepped to the service line... and blasted a second serve ace instead, then did a clenched-fist-while-leaping-in-the-air celebration for added emphasis. If it's a big point, you want Serena's serve. She led 4-2, and had won 80% of her first serve points in the set, compared to 44% for Henin. Williams stood at 2-for-2 in break points in the 3rd, while Henin was 1-of-5. The numbers would bear out as the final result neared.
An Henin double-fault gave Williams a 30/15 lead, then she wasn't able to successfully pull off a backhand half-volley of a Serena running crosscourt backhand at her feet. A long Henin backhand off a deep service return moved Williams to a 5-2 lead with a third straight break of the Belgian's serve. Then, just four points from another grand slam title, Williams was not to be denied.
Again, she blew an ace up the middle on the first point. She did it again on the third (her twelfth of the match). Two points later, a Williams backhand shot to the corner was out of the reach of a scrambling Henin and it was all over. Serena flung her racket behind her, fell flat on her back and covered her face with her hands, then clenched and raised her fists above her head. She'd done it yet again.
Williams def. Henin 6-4/3-6/6-2.
When Henin left the game twenty-one months ago, we knew what we'd lost. But in getting to that point, she lost more. Her heart. Her desire. Maybe even her sense of self. In retrospect, her string of uninspired losses in the early months of '08 foreshadowed what happened on May 14. That said, her perfectly "La Petit Taureau"-esque moments in the twelve matches she's played in her comeback so far in 2010 serve to provide public anecdotes that her a-little-more-frequent smile and talk of feeling more self-aware and in control of her life ARE evidence of an Henin who is, at once, both different, in her game style and personal interactions, but also largely the same when it comes to being able to find additional reservoirs of will where most players (Serena excluded) would have long since been only kicking at dry earth.
Henin, just like Williams, wears combat boots, too. They're a little scuffed tonight, but I think most are pretty confident that she'll have them shined up, looking even better than new as this season moves along.
At the end of the 2:07 match, it was apparent that Henin had been up for the promised battle, but so was the fact that Serena was carrying the biggest weapon when the two faced off in the day's most important moments. Early on, Henin's choice to attempt to impose her new in-point aggression into the proceedings caused her to overplay some of her break point opportunities. Later, her serve wasn't quite able to hold the line of defense against Serena in the 3rd set, as Henin's tactics to avoid double-faults and maintain a higher 1st serve percentage -- largely by going for serves up the middle over the low portion of the net -- made her a tad too predictable and giving Williams a chance to pounce in important moments. Meanwhile, Williams' serve, as usual, was often her best, and most successful, bail-out option when things got tough. Henin never retreated in the face of such an overwhelming force, but neither did Williams. The American took "Melbourne Hill," preventing Henin's slam-title-in-two-events improvised battleplan from becoming reality, but it's Williams' own "second time around" dominance at the slams that is promising to provide only further depth to her career legacy.
Serena, after her first Aussie Open title in an even-numbered year, has now won three of the last five slam titles, and four of six back to the '08 U.S. Open (she's been in five of the last seven finals). Career slam win #12 ties her with Billie Jean King on the all-time list, with the likes of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert both a not-as-distant-as-it-might-seem six slams away in the historical pecking order. She needed this win over Henin, though, to solidify her standing. Other than defeating Henin at a hard court or clay slam, only taking down Venus at Wimbledon can really be used as a true barometer of just how to rate Serena's in-the-moment accomplishments at this point. When she's in fine form, no one but those two can touch her... and even they would likely lose more often than they'd win. Hopefully, this won't be the last time Serena is forced to rise up to the challenge of the willfull Belgian in a slam final... such moments can only bring out the best in her, Justine and women's tennis, in general.
- Mars Blackmon
Thus, ladies and gentlemen, the winner, and still champ-eeeen. Soul Sister #1 and Melbourne's ultimate survivor. I give you... the one and only, Miss Serena Williams.
[originally posted June, 2010]
Barbie def. Henin 2-6/6-2/6-3
...after seeing Clijsters grab early leads in 2010's two previous all-Waffle affairs in Brisbane and Miami, it was Henin who had the hot hand in the opening set this time. She broke Clijsters in the first game (KC had led 40/15, then double-faulted at deuce), and maintained her momentum throughout the set. She won it 6-2, but a fall in the middle of the court in the late-going of that set led to several visits from trainers, and it's possible that an injury to her right elbow played a part in Henin sporting a less aggressive game the rest of the match. Or not. With Henin's in-match drifts this season, one can never be sure that any physical ailment caused her to go away from her gameplan, or that it was simply a case of her losing concentration. Either way, Clijsters won a long opening service game in the 2nd set, then took control of the rallies thereafter. Maybe at some point this year, one or both of these two will play a competitive, FULL match against each other. As it is, you'd have to combine their three 2.0 matches to experience that satisfaction. Clijsters is now 3-0 against Henin this season, as Henin has yet to find a way to take total advantage of her countrywoman's vulnerabilities as she did in the past. KC has been inconsistent, but shown far more mettle down the stretch than she did in the pair's 1.0 meetings. All three matches have gone three sets, and she's now taken over the lead in their career head-to-head 13-12. This was only the sixth time in the twenty-five contests that the winner of the 1st set lost the match.
[originally posted July 2, 2010]
There were no REALLY big deals going on on the courts of the All-England Club today. But that doesn't mean there was no news to kick around. Of course, the biggest occurrence in women's tennis over the last twenty-four hours concerns who WON'T be around for the next couple of months -- Justine Henin.
It turns out that that elbow injury she incurred during her fall against Kim Clijsters was far more serious than anyone anticipated at the time. It surely explains her big drop-off in play during the final two sets. Henin announced on her website that she has a partial ligament fracture and will miss two months, meaning it's highly unlikely that she'll be at the U.S. Open (and if she does show up, she'd have no tune-up events beforehand). Grrrr. Henin's comeback season started off so well back in January, but has been subjected to sputtering fits and starts every since. A good moment has been followed by a bad one, and vice versa. Much like with Clijsters last fall, the best either returning Belgian has been in their 2.0 career was during their first month out of retirement. It just goes to show how mentally and physically draining the long haul of a WTA season is. Even the best athletes in the sport have a hard time maintaining the high success level that their talent would suggest if they are forced or decide to step away from the grinding routine for a year or more. It sort of makes what Serena and Venus have done at times in their careers, returning from long periods of inactivity to win slam titles, seem even more remarkable in retrospect. In many ways, though, maybe this break will be good for Henin. To let her body heal, and her mind reassess just what she wants to accomplish -- and how she plans to do it -- in her second go-around. There have been myriad questions about those aspects of her game for the last five months, not to mention precisely WHY she really returned in the first place.
She did it to win Wimbledon, then that wasn't her "ultimate goal." She wanted to be more aggressive and play with her head up and body moving forward, but she's never really seemed to take to the change naturally. Often, she's been seemingly caught in the middle of her old game and her new one, leading her to become tentative, then her mind to "drift" soon after she'd put together an inspired set of play. How does she REALLY want to go about all this? Does she even know? Does she really want to at all? She has to pick a path and go down it at full speed, or this whole second career enterprise is simply an exercise in wasting time.
For Henin to come close to resembling the LPT of the past, in mind and spirit rather than only memory, she has to FULLY commit to a course of action just as she did in the past. Truthfully, I'm not sure that she's capable of that. There's been little evidence of it in 2010 outside of her first few weeks of action. She said at the start that she wanted to do things "differently" this time around. To enjoy it more. To appreciate things. To share the experience. Well, how's that gone so far? Somehow, I doubt that losing with a smile is better than winning with a "scowl," or at least any sort of expression that would be considered "unClijstersarian." I figured that the offseason was going to finally give her the chance to produce her own internal State of Justine report, then react accordingly in 2011. But maybe now she'll get a head start on the details.
Her '10 slam chances look to be over. But she can still qualify for the WTA Championships, so consider that her new target. She's recently been quick to call this a "transition year" once it became obvious that she wasn't going to simply pick up where she left off when she retired as the #1-ranked player in the world. Rather than get better as the year has progressed, she's seemed to regress instead. At least the layoff will force her to make some tough decisions.
Thus, everyone waits to find out what she decides to do, and how.
[originally posted January 26, 2011]
Justine Henin has retired again, citing the elbow injury that she originally incurred at Wimbledon last year. Doctors tell her that it will not heal.
In a statement, she said, "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 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."
I'll have more comments on this at some point in the near future.
[originally posted January 28, 2011]
"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-successful 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 severity 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 visitor 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 psyches 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 ...it 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, hers 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 absence. 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 in order 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 competition'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 prominent 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 slips 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.
January 28 - Comment Section Postscript...
Just thought I'd add this. This is a section from the May 15, 2008 Backspin 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."
In March 2013, Justine Henin gave birth to her first child, daughter Lalie.
THE JUSTINE HENIN FAMILY (2013)
Two years later she married Lalie's father, Belgian cameraman Benoit Bertuzzo, with whom she'd been in a relationship since 2011.
There is still one more day remaining in "LPT Week," but this is essentially the last "commentary & remembrance" edition of this week-long tribute to Henin. I must say, it's been nice to look back, to re-live some of the good times, and to be reminded of all the reasons why they were good, as well as why "LPT 2" didn't really work... largely because the specifics also served to highlight what gave birth to legendary Backspin figure "La Petit Taureau" in the first place. Now I miss her all over again. But she'll never fully go away. Henin -- and LPT -- will be honored in Newport on Saturday afternoon. They'll both then live on there forever.
Henin has even made another "comeback" on the WTA tour. After years in the far-off shadows running her tennis academy (which first opened in 2007), Henin actively returned to the "scene of her crimes" in 2016 as a member of Ukrainian Elina Svitolina's coaching team. Hopefully, that relationship will deepen and Justine will be there to witness the rewards of dedication, drive and still more hard work on the practice courts. And we'll get to see her doing it, too. If it doesn't work out with Svitolina, hopefully a similar arrangement will work out with another young player on tour.
HENIN and SVITOLINA (2016)
We and the WTA can only be honored and made better by the presence of Henin, and all the history, intelligence and know-how she brings with her. Who knows, maybe already-legendary-coaching figure Amelie Mauresmo and Henin will face off once again, by proxy, as their respective charges face off for a major title somewhere down the line.
But maybe I'm just hoping for another glimpse of LPT, even if it's only from her vantage point in the stands. Which, when you think about it, would be sort of fitting. That IS, after all, where this whole story started... in Paris twenty-four years ago.
Ah, Justine. You continue to be a never-ending source of wonder and inspiration. After all these years, it's STILL swell.
All for now.