There is an intrigue to Justine Henin which is hard to explain. It is in her personality as much as her style of play. You don’t just watch her play — you watch her with interest, curiosity, wondering what she will do next. She asks questions, and you don’t know the answers. She needs support, from her coach, from the fans, but doesn’t know how to ask for it. There’s a vulnerability to the Belgian which is unusual in most professional athletes.
She speaks softly with a Belgian accent which tends to get stronger when she’s talking about her past. She has not had it easy, and yet that resistance has forged her character. She was 12 years old when her mother died, and has since become estranged from her family (she no longer has any contact with her father and her relationship with her younger sister, Sarah, is strained at best). She married Pierre-Yves Hardenne in 2002, but the couple separated in January 2007, for reasons Henin does not which to share.
She is a private person, and that distance is actually part of her intrigue. People watch her on court because it is through her tennis that they get to know her. Her life experiences have made her stronger, without a doubt, and that willingness to succeed is shown on the court. She works incredibly hard for tournaments, and she gives it 100% every time. She is devoted to tennis, perhaps because it is all she has. “Tennis is my life,” she said. “I love it. I live for it.” Few will argue otherwise.
But what is it about Henin which separates her from the others? Maybe we should start with the obvious, her size. She’s much smaller than the ‘average’ tennis player, with the Belgian standing at about 1m67. In theory that should put her in the same league as Martina Hingis, who uses skill before power. And Justine Henin is without a doubt a “pretty player”, whose shot selection is often beyond the norms. Oh, and her back-hand “ain’t bad either” — in fact, it’s been described as “the most beautiful backhand in tennis”. Her opponents might think of it as also being the most lethal.
Despite her size, Henin manages to generate power with her shots, and her service. In fact, her second serve is one of the fastest on the women’s tour, if not the fastest. However, the power tends to lead to double faults. But Henin doesn’t treat her second serve as a weakness — she hits it like she would her first serve.
Yet serve and style aside, the deepest intrigue Henin offers on court is her history with each tournament. She has a personal attachment with each tournament, an element of history, an intimate connection. But the main one is with Roland Garros. It is there at it all begun, when she saw the final between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, it was that afternoon that Henin promised her mother “I’ll play on center court and win it”.
Some consider Roland Garros as being “her” tournament because of the history she has with it. It is, in some ways, her only remaining link to her mother. She plays at Roland Garros for the memories, for ‘the one’ who is no longer there, for a promise she made long ago and still feels she can to keep. She may be “the queen of court”, but it is more than her ability to play on clay which makes her a clear favorite for the tournament.
It is hard to see anyone really challenging her this year. Amélie Mauresmo may be playing in front of her home crowd, but in the case of the French woman this is hardly an advantage. Martina Hingis is desperate to find herself again, and may not find the cure she needs in time for the tournament. Newcomers Ana Ivanovic and Tatiana Golovin have both have some impressive results recently on clay (Berlin and Amelia Island respectively), but they both lack experience in Grand Slams.
Henin’s main ‘threat’, actually, comes in the form of Serena Williams, but the American’s health and motivation is questionable if nothing else. The last time the two players meet was in the final at Miami. If Justine Henin won the first set 6-0, Serena Williams would claim the other sets 7-5 6-3. But the glory that day went to the Belgian, who was playing during the tournament which brought back the memories she had so often tried to forget.
It was intriguing to watch that final, Williams with her brute force and Henin battling the memories with her “pretty player” status. It was personal for both of them — Williams wanting to prove her comeback was for real and Henin wanting to prove the memories didn’t affect her. It was personal because of their stories, because it was another rivalry being reborn.
A rivalry which will continue, if Williams so chooses, at Roland Garros. A rivalry based on opposites, Williams with her desperation to win and Henin quietly fulfilling a promise from long ago. Miami was Williams’ tournament, with her home crowd, but Roland Garros is Henin’s tournament, with her memories, and a crowd which isn’t hers but who choose to support her anyway.
It is difficult to imagine anyone taking the tournament away from Henin. She plays there because it is “hers”, because she needs it maybe more than she should, or even realizes. She needs it to remember why she plays tennis in the first place, to not forget the old memories and to be able to create new ones. Roland Garros was her beginning of her tale.
The quiet Belgian may prove she hasn’t finished writing her story.
Written by Claire Mayer