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
Sunday 11 November 2007
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.
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