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
sportLiverpool 5 Norwich City 1: Uruguayan striker has now scored 11 league goals against the club
arts + entsOlivier-nominated actor and singer is set to star in Lloyd Webber's musical about the Profumo affair
filmWith more than 70 per cent of early films lost, archivists are scouring the world to preserve the precious examples that remain
sportThe coach of Chalfont St Peter's under-10s football team was relieved of his duties after he sent an email to parents that said: 'I am only interested in winning'
techA piece of new hi-tech kit aims to get us scribbling again
indybestMake getting out of the wrong side of bed on cold winter mornings a thing of the past with our selection of night-time covers
life + styleClarissa Baldwin is the brains behind the slogan 'A Dog is for Life not just for Christmas'
Arsenal 2 Hull City 0 match report: Nicklas Bendtner back in the goals as superb Arsenal march on at the top
Liverpool 5 Norwich City 1 match report: Sublime Luis Suarez tears Norwich apart once again
Fulham 1 Tottenham Hotspur 2 match report: Andre Villas-Boas masterstroke helps Spurs edge Rene Meulensteen's battling Fulham
David Moyes admits Manchester United face tough task to retain their title
Manchester United 0 Everton 1 match report: David Moyes misery as Roberto Martinez pulls off the elusive victory
- 1 North Korea: Kim Jong Un 'sacks powerful uncle and has his aides executed'
- 2 The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are 'better at map reading'
- 3 Is this the scariest advert ever? Japanese tyre commercial comes with its own disclaimer and health warning
- 4 A forgotten episode in Russian history leaves links with the Philippines
- 5 ‘Put it in my mouth’: Viewers outraged by apparent reference to oral sex in VIP e-cig advert