Justine Henin: 'I was alone. I didn't know who I was any more'

In her first interview since deciding to return to the tour, the former world No 1 tells Paul Newman in Limelette that exhaustion drove her away but that her love of tennis – and that missing Wimbledon title – lured her back

Wednesday 09 December 2009 01:00
The 27-year-old Belgian fully intends to win Wimbledon, the only jewel missing from her Grand Slam crown
The 27-year-old Belgian fully intends to win Wimbledon, the only jewel missing from her Grand Slam crown

Justine Henin seems to specialise in all-or-nothing relationships. When she fell out with her father and other male members of her family – for reasons that have never been made public – she cut off all ties with them. They were not even invited to her wedding, after which Henin and her husband moved to Monte Carlo in search of privacy. The marriage lasted just four years. This summer she came back to Belgium "to be close to family and friends".

Henin, who still struggles to come to terms with the death of her mother 14 years ago, has a new companion at her side these days. He is dark and handsome, his hair cascading down over his eyes, and will travel around the world when she makes her comeback next year.

The 27-year-old Belgian says that Deuce, a 15-month-old dog, "really changed my life" when he entered her world last year, shortly after her "definitive" decision to retire. In the long and often lonely months Henin spent contemplating her future, Deuce was the loyal friend she needed.

You sometimes wonder whether Henin will ever be completely at peace with herself, but for the moment her mind is settled. With Deuce lying by her side in the trophy room of the tennis club she owns in Limelette, south of Brussels, there was even the occasional hint of excitement in her voice as she looked ahead to her return.

Throughout her tennis life Henin has been bracketed with her fellow Belgian, Kim Clijsters, who crowned her own comeback after a two-year break with a remarkable victory at the US Open three months ago. However, the two women could not be more different and have little contact, although Henin sent Clijsters a congratulatory text. A smile is never far from the face of the outgoing Clijsters, who chatters nineteen-to-the-dozen. Henin is by no means unfriendly, but there is a seriousness – and sometimes a sadness – about her. She chooses her words carefully.

There are never any half-measures with the seven-times Grand Slam champion. Last weekend Henin made her first public appearance on a court since May 2008 at an exhibition tournament in Charleroi. For three nights in a row she was so overcome by emotion that she cried herself to sleep. There were more tears after she beat Kirsten Flipkens – she went on to beat the world No 12 Flavia Pennetta – but, typically, they were not shed in public. "I was on my own," Henin said. "I like to keep my feelings to myself. It was emotional to feel this again because it's all so precious to me. Tennis is part of myself and my life. I have no regrets about the fact that I've been away for a long time because last year I was exhausted – mentally, physically and emotionally. I really thought I was existing only because of tennis. I had to put the game away to learn more things about myself."

If last weekend showed promise, the real test will come when Henin returns to the Sony Ericsson tour in Brisbane next month. She then plays the Australian Open, two years after her last Grand Slam appearance.

It was 11 days before last year's French Open, where she was favourite for the fifth time in six years, that Henin announced her retirement. The first reigning world No 1 ever to quit, she insisted her name was removed immediately from the rankings.

Henin believes the seeds for her decision had been sown the previous year. From the start of the 2007 French Open to the end of the season she won 41 out of 42 matches, her only defeat coming to Marion Bartoli in the Wimbledon semi-finals. However, in characteristic fashion she had allowed herself no time to deal with personal issues. Her sister was going through a difficult period and Henin started wondering about her own future. "I was saying to myself: 'Where is my life? Is it to still be on the tour, or to be more like a normal person?'"

Brushed aside by Maria Sharapova in the 2008 Australian Open quarter-finals, Henin was then humiliated by Serena Williams in Miami, losing 6-2, 6-0. The final straw came with defeat to Dinara Safina in Berlin.

"I didn't want to be on the court any more," Henin said. "The tennis itself wasn't a problem. The problem was motivation. I just felt: 'Please don't talk to me about the French Open or Wimbledon'. To me it wasn't important any more. I just wanted to know more things about myself. And I had the feeling that tennis didn't have the capacity to make me happy any more. I felt it was the time to go away.

"There were so many questions to which I needed answers and I couldn't deal with them while I was still playing. And I think it was taking that break that gave me the possibility to come back now.

"I want to have a family one day, but over the last year I've realised that isn't part of my life at the moment. I want to go back to tennis, though I need to do things differently, with more serenity.

"Tennis wasn't the only problem I had in trying to find a good balance in my life. When I retired it was because I thought that tennis made it difficult for me to find stability, but that wasn't the case. It didn't make it easy, for sure, but there were a lot of other things in my life that I needed to fix."

Like what? "A lot of things: when I lost my Mum, different things. We all have a different story. All my weaknesses."

Between May 2008 and June 2009 Henin picked up a racket "just two or three times when friends wanted to play". Initially, she spent two months in the Greek islands. "I started studying again, finishing the high school work I had stopped when I was 16," she said.

"To start with I kept running, though my knee was hurting, which was why I had surgery on it at the end of last year, when I also had an operation on my eyes. After that I just felt: 'Don't talk to me about sport, about tennis'. I didn't want to do anything. I stopped completely for six months. I started to feel pretty bad. I was feeling alone, I didn't know who I was any more, I didn't know what to do with myself. It was difficult, though it got better after a few months."

Roger Federer's triumph at this year's French Open ignited a spark. Like Henin, the Swiss needed one more title to complete his Grand Slam collection; in the Belgian's case, Wimbledon is the missing link.

"When I saw Roger winning I could see all the hard work that he had put in – and all the doubts that he had had to overcome – and it was an important moment in my reflections," she said. "The thought of trying to win Wimbledon was certainly a big part early on when I was questioning what I wanted to do."

Having entered an exhibition tournament (which never actually took place) in Dubai in June, Henin started to help one of the teenagers at her club's academy to prepare for the US Open junior tournament. "I started to hit and within a few minutes everything came back to me," Henin said. "Over the next few days and weeks I started thinking about coming back."

In the past Henin has never made a major career decision without consulting Carlos Rodriguez, the Argentine who has been her coach since she was 14. This time she told him that she was going to make a comeback. Rodriguez was surprised but agreed to work with her again.

At just 5ft 5in tall and weighing only 9st 1lb, Henin has always had to work harder than nearly all her main rivals, most of whom are built on Amazonian lines. Her ravenous appetite for the daily grind has sometimes cost her dear – she was out with highly debilitating cytomegalovirus for most of 2004 although, incredibly, she got up from her sickbed to win the Olympic title – but her eyes light up at the thought of returning to the treadmill.

"I love it," she said. "I love to push the limits back, though we are working differently in training now. I think I'm physically as well prepared today as I was in the past, but we're trying to be smarter in our work."

On the court Henin wants to be more aggressive in order to shorten points and conserve energy. "Physically, the only way I can handle another three or four years – or however long I stay on the tour – will be by going forward."

That might also help at Wimbledon, where, despite reaching two finals, she has never quite believed she is a good enough grass-court player to win. Winning Wimbledon is a high priority, though she will not sacrifice her chances of success at her beloved Roland Garros, where her mother took her as a child.

Henin also recognises the need to spend time outside of the bubble in which she needs to focus on her tennis. "I need to relax and take some oxygen when I can," she said. "That's what I couldn't do in the past. I was in my bubble the whole time, all day, all night."

She is not setting herself any targets and may find the competition tougher this time. The Williams sisters are still around, Clijsters and Sharapova (after a shoulder injury) have come back, and Henin has never played the emerging Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka.

Nevertheless, she agrees that it is currently easier for women to come back than men, as Clijsters proved. Henin, who had been planning to announce her comeback immediately after the US Open but delayed it out of respect for her fellow Belgian, said: "It was fantastic the way Kim took her opportunity and I really admire the fact that, mentally and emotionally, she was able to do it, but it wouldn't happen in the men's game because everyone is very strong.

"There are big differences in the women's game and not all of the players are physically very fit, which I agree is not good for the image of the sport."

Never say never again: Return results

Kim Clijsters

After retiring in 2007, citing injuries, Clijsters returned to tennis after receiving a wild card to play in this year's US Open. She proceeded to win the championship for a second time, becoming the first unseeded player and wild card to win, and the first mother to lift a major since Evonne Goolagong back in 1980.

Lance Armstrong

The American cyclist came back from testicular cancer to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles between 1999 and 2005. Armstrong then retired to become a worldwide ambassador in the fight against cancer, before returning to the Tour this year to finish a highly creditable third.

Floyd Mayweather Jnr

The former WBC welterweight champion has twice announced his retirement from boxing. After beating Oscar De La Hoya he stated, "I was once told never to let boxing retire you," but knowingly added: "If they give me a price I can't resist..." Indeed, Mayweather returned to fight Ricky Hatton for a reputed $20m (£12.3m) and again to battle Marquez for a miserly $15m.

Michael Jordan

After retiring for two seasons the basketball star returned to Chicago Bulls in 1995 and helped his team win three further titles. Jordan left again in 1998 to play professional baseball. However, still not content, he returned to the NBA three years later to coach and play for Washington Wizards, before officially retiring in 2003.

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean

Britain's king and queen of the ice won the Olympic ice dancing gold in the 1984 Games. Two years later the pair retired from professional skating, but made an emotional comeback at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer when, aged 35 and 36, they won a contentious bronze.

Jamie Mitchell

Henin factfile

Born: 1 June, 1982, Liège

Height: 5 ft 6in

Weight: 9st 1lb

Pro debut: Jan 1999

Win/loss: 493/107

Grand Slams: 7 (Australian Open 2004; French Open 2003, 2005 2006 2007; US Open 2003, 2007)

Singles titles: 41

Doubles titles: 2

Total prize-money: $19,461,375

Became the seventh woman to hold No 1 ranking for 12 consecutive months

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments