Henin back at peak of her powers after dark descent into the abyss

Belgian recovers from broken marriage, family heartache and a shattered body to play the best tennis of her life. By Ronald Atkin

Wimbledon's prominent use of that grandold Rudyard Kipling quote about triumph and disaster is deliberately sited to catch the eye of every competitor about to march on to Centre Court. Many of the biggest names in tennis have gone on to "treat those two imposters just the same" as Kipling advised, but rarely in the same 12-month span.

For Justine Henin, the imposters came in reverse order. January heralded the disaster of a collapsed marriage, since when the route to triumph has been a broad and acclaimed one, both on the personal and career fronts.

Henin's decision to reunite with her family after seven years of frosty separation was certainly a factor in the more settled and supremely confident manner in which she has gone on to recapture the world No 1 position in what she asserts, with a wide smile, is her best-ever year.

It was a year in which, the 25-year-old Belgian readily concedes, "I grew up a lot". Also a year in which she has won nine titles, including the Grand Slams of Roland Garros (for a fourth time) and the US Open – and above all she stayed healthy.

So how did she "grow up" when her four-year marriage to Pierre-Yves Hardenne fell apart? "I didn't know if I was going to be able to overcome those problems so I tried to keep focused on my tennis and to rebuild my confidence, and the result is an incredible season.

"Even so, it has been a difficult year. When things became tough personally I understood it was important for me to go back to my family and I grew up because of that," she says.

The reunion came about from another near-disaster in April, when her brother David was seriously hurt in a car crash. Justine hurried to his bedside, where there occurred a tearful abandonment of animosities with her other brother, Thomas, and sister Sarah. Soon afterwards Justine was also reconciled with her father, Jose, and the family Henin was together again,happy for the first time since before the death of her mother, Françoise, from cancer in 1995.

Acknowledging that much of the fault lay with her, Henin admits: "It had got out of proportion." Tough cookie that she has always been, Henin said she never gave a thought to quitting tennis after the marital break-up. "I know the importance of tennis in my life and the sacrifices I have made for it in the past. It is what has given me balance for 20 years.

"In January I wasn't a tennis player any more, just a person trying to move her life forward. It was important to keep working, to keep being busy, so tennis was like therapy, and the result has been fantastic."

She asserts that, having just gone through perhaps her first-ever year free from illness or injury, fitness and good health have been at the heart of her miracle season. Perhaps meticulous planning should be thrown in there, too, since she now travels with a team of five, all Belgians, dedicated to sending her on court at her peak – two doctors, a nutritionist, a fitness adviser and a physio. Plus, of course, her loyal coach of 11 years, Carlos Rodriguez, the Argentinian with whom she has just opened a tennis academy in Belgium to ensure a continuation of their fruitful partnership when her playing days are over.

It is only three years, just after winning the Australian Open in 2004, since she was so affectedby the energy-sapping cytomegalovirus that she was bedridden for all but a few hours each day and was too tired to try driving a car or going for a walk. She was forced off the women's tour three times that year, emerging briefly in August to capture the gold medal at the Athens Olympics, but then a comeback was further hampered by a knee injury sustained in training.

The new-look, extremely frank Henin says of the sad episode: "It was probably caused by being overtrained. I never stopped, I thought I was a machine, that everything would be fine all the time. Then I realised I had gone too far. Now it is better, but it was a big lesson for me. I have to be careful, not to play too many tournaments [the Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid this weekend is only her 15th, and final, one of the year], and not to get tired or nervous."

That said, Henin has been a victim of asthma recently and has been openly questioning whether she should defend her Olympic title in the smoggy air of Beijing next year. "It all came as a result of a spell of bronchitis I had earlier in the year," she says. "I have been troubled for a few months now, it has been tough sleeping. I am under medication for it and it's feeling much better."

Asthma has certainly not put a crimp in her all-action style, which has seen her abandon the baseline she once religiously hugged for a rich all-court game involving frequent trips to the net. This new, and for her strange, way of playing was first tested in Madrid exactly a year ago, when she won the WTA's year-end championships. "Carlos and I worked a lot on that part of my game," she says, "being more positive, attacking the net."

As if in tandem, Henin's personality has also become more open. "I have to say that I didn't help myself. I was cold to people, distant, annoyed they didn't seem to understand the tough life I had gone through to be successful in tennis." Now the smile is a quick one and the popularity level is on the up, helped by the ranking rise. "I am as happy now as I have ever been because so many things have improved," she says. "The highlight was my victory at the French Open with my family back in my life, followed by winning the US Open [for a second time] in a city which I don't like much, a great challenge."

The only disappointment was a shock defeat in the Wimbledon semi-final by Marion Bartoli, on which Henin also puts a positive spin by claiming, "I learned a lot of things, too, in that defeat, it was a lesson in humility". It came after a draining quarter-final win over Serena Williams and she has not lost a match since, a remarkable achievement.

Henin stands exactly 5ft 53/4in and in her earlier days, she concedes, she was sometimes concerned about the size of her opponents. "So I had to learn to be perfect technically, to have good reactions, to move well and to be forceful. Now, with my quality, it doesn't matter who I play and how tall they are."

Henin is about to go off to collect another achievement award from the Madrid folk, but before departing she has this to say about Wimbledon, the one Grand Slam to have eluded her so far: "Winning it would not prove I am a great player. It would not be the end of my career, or my life, if I didn't. It is important, but not the end."

But for someone who is the embodiment of her sponsors' slogan: "Impossible is nothing", her chances should not be dismissed. As long as sheheeds Kipling.

Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning


Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes