The Heart & Soul of Justine Henin
In theory our evaluation of a tennis player should start and end on the court. But as the beguiling case of Justine Henin proves, this is not so. As an individual sport, tennis begs for armchair psychology, assessments not just of character and craft but also of the media-saturated word, personality.
Unlike her countrywoman, Kim Clijsters (left), Justine is not cuddly or articulate in ways that reveal vulnerability or warmth.
Sadly, it will never be easy for Henin to gain appreciation, particularly in the United States. She’s neither coquettish, nor exotic, nor graced with an accessible plot line. She hasn’t come from Eastern Europe, nor America, but from Belgium, a nation we in our country barely know. Unlike her countrywoman, Kim Clijsters, she is not cuddly or articulate in ways that reveal vulnerability or warmth.
Henin is exceptionally guarded, in some cases for good reason, in others for ways we can not fathom. A cloud hangs over her personal life. An older sister died before Justine was born. Her mother died when Justine was barely an adolescent. Henin has gone years without speaking to her father, and is barely in touch with her siblings. Just this year, her marriage dissolved.
On the court, there have been just enough disturbing incidents in her career to clutter the vacuum of perception left by her introverted nature. During her hotly contested 2003 French Open semifinal with Serena Williams, Henin failed to notify the umpire that she had raised her hand asking Williams to slow down.
In the 2004 Australian Open final she intimidated the umpire into making an overrule in her favor. As far as the matter of her defaulting in the middle of the 2006 Australian Open finals goes, my view is that she was in between a rock and a hard place. Knowing how little she had, should she have merely defaulted the final? Once behind in the second set, how good would it have looked if she’d merely tanked? The more vexing matter was the way Henin was hardly gracious in her post-match comments that day, barely aware of the effect of her actions on her opponent, Amelie Mauresmo. For someone who demonstrates extraordinary delicacy and sensitivity with her racket, the Belgian can be horrifically tone-deaf.
And yet, all the above constitutes a minority portion of the assessment. What matters most is that Henin is a supreme champion, a player who goes about her tennis in an exemplary manner. Unlike such world-weary types as Marat Safin or even Clijsters (surely one with an appetite for the game would not announce her retirement two years in advance), Henin is a relentless, complaint-free campaigner. While she’s certainly had her share of physical woes the last few years, Henin’s capacity for getting off the ground and back into the heat of competition is what this game is all about. This year, for example, she pulled out of the Australian Open to deal with her marriage. She promptly returned to competition and won the desert double of Doha and Dubai. Extremely conscious of personal pacing and scheduling – a lesson the legion of Russians could learn from – Henin skipped the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells and is hoping to earn her first title at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.
From the get go, her backhand of course was the crowd-pleaser.
Better still, Henin plays a game unlike any woman in tennis history. She is as close as a contemporary woman gets to Roger Federer, her game a captivating mix of speeds and spins. Also like Federer, she is superb at transitioning from defense to offense, her feet constantly taking the small, adjustment steps necessary to put her in a good place for doing just the right thing with the ball. From the get go, her backhand of course was the crowd-pleaser, a one-hander timed perfectly and also possessed of that unteachable brand of style. But she knew that a quality one-hander is rarely a point-ender, but instead more of an opportunity creator. Five years ago, Henin beefed up her forehand, an improvement that’s been the key to her winning five Grand Slam titles. Her serve is also a continuous work in progress, sometimes to her detriment, as she’s fiddled with various service motions. All of this makes her a fun player to watch, a fresh breath of diversity.
In the end, Justine will have squeezed every drop she can from this sport.
One of Billie Jean King’s trademark comments is that a tennis player doesn’t want to look back at the age of 50 and ask, “What if? What if I’d really put it on the line and given all I could to be as good as I could be?” In a sport where players lack teammates to kick their butts into shape and the financial rewards are quite good, tennis is all too filled with middle managers – technicians who go to and fro, pick up their big checks, ride their company cars into pre-assigned parking spaces and trudge into their windowless offices.
Henin has none of this complacency. She will look back with no regret. She will have squeezed every drop she can from this sport. That she’s done this so well throughout her career – and given so much pleasure to tennis fans -- should already be cause for celebration. It’s unfortunate it’s so difficult for her to share that joy with us.
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For more than twenty years Pat Etcheberry has been providing athletes from around the world with the winning edge. We call this the Etcheberry Experience, and players with an Etcheberry experience have hoisted Championship Trophies at over one hundred major championships, including 28 Australian Opens, 18 Wimbledons, 22 UP Opens, 22 French Opens and 15 Olympic medals.
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