Henin could play again 'if she can't find happiness in real life'
Sunday 18 May 2008
Having shocked the world with the announcement of her retirement from tennis, Justine Henin, the former world No 1, spent yesterday behind closed doors... playing tennis. In a way it was typical of the girl who used to bash her mother's kitchen to pieces with forehands and backhands at the age of seven. But the venue and opposition for her latest – some fear last – tennis match was poignant.
She played her brother Thomas at his new tennis club in Rocourt, Liège. It was a knockabout game, just for fun, and no media were invited. For once in Justine's extraordinary life it did not matter who won and lost. There would be no debrief from her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, with whom the dynamic changed once they went into business together to open a costly tennis academy. There would be no attempt to change her game to help her win Wimbledon, a gamble that ended in her form falling apart.
But the fact that she was trying to recapture that basic sense of fun with a racket suggested to some members of her family, including her opponent, that the rest of us may not have seen the last of the backhand once described by John McEnroe as "the best shot in tennis". Even Justine had quietly told one Belgian reporter last week, in response to the inevitable question about whether her retirement was permanent: "I don't have a crystal ball".
When I asked Thomas about the possibility of her making a comeback, he left the door open too: "Maybe, I don't know. In six months to a year, if she hasn't found happiness in real life, it is possible. We don't know about the future." Thomas is very close to Justine again, though it has not always been that way. She had not spoken to Thomas for seven years until her other brother, David, almost died in a car crash in 2007.
One of the reasons that bitter feud lasted so long was the fact that Justine did not return home for the funeral of Thomas's six-week-old son Emilien, who died of lung failure in 2001. She was too busy playing tennis in the US. Thomas has since remarried and has a baby daughter called Kiara, to whom Justine is godmother. But last autumn tragedy struck again in the Henin family when Justine's younger sister, Sarah, was told that the baby son she was carrying had no chance of long-term survival because of a heart defect. Justine had to play tennis for Steffi Graf's cancer charity in Mannheim the day after she heard the news, and smiled for the cameras while desolate inside. As that son, Romain, was born prematurely and died, Justine was playing in Madrid at the WTA tournament she eventually won by beating Maria Sharapova in an epic battle.
She had seriously considered pulling out, but her father, Jose, told her to win it for Sarah and Romain. Justine obliged in dramatic style, but felt so mentally and physically shattered by being torn in different directions that she knew the end of her career was close.
Then a wonderful thing happened, though it only sharpened Justine's desire to quit. Sarah became pregnant again, this time with a baby girl who has been declared perfectly healthy as she prepares for birth. Before that day comes, Sarah will be married, to her long-term boyfriend, Louis, in July. Justine's tennis schedule would have allowed her to enjoy the wedding day itself, but not the preparations and perhaps not the birth. This time she will be at her sister's side, come what may.
However, Sarah's story has also caused Justine to realise that in her own personal life she has been going backwards. She divorced Pierre-Yves Hardenne a few months ago and thought she might have found her knight in shining armour during a hush-hush winter romance. Instead, her lover, a South African doctor, proved to be anything but Mr Right, and they went their separate ways a few weeks ago.
Jose revealed: "That's over, and Justine felt that men don't want her for the person she is but because she is the worldNo 1. She believes she will have a much bigger chance of meeting a good man and then having children in the future if she is not playing tennis any more."
If Justine's Prince Charming does not show himself in the world beyond tennis, however, and games like yesterday's against her brother rekindle her love of her sport, could she return to become queen of the courts again? "It might be possible to see her come back one day, just a chance," suggested Jose. "When Kim Clijsters quit she stopped completely. Justine is already playing again, so who knows?" If she finds no love match, Henin may yet return. Time will tell, and she knows the clock is ticking.
Mark Ryan's new biography of Justine Henin is published by JR Books in paperback, £9.99
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