Friday 20 October 2017

Tennis: Back in the game

Justine Henin in the Brisbane International 2010 Photo: Getty Images
Justine Henin in the Brisbane International 2010 Photo: Getty Images

FOR Justine Henin, life was good until June, when Roger Federer won the French Open. She was an ex-tennis player -- a busy, fulfilled, very happily ex-tennis player -- and she had it all worked out until that day Federer started messing with her head.

She surrenders all this information very willingly; surprisingly willingly for an athlete who is reputedly shy and private. But she is perfectly forthcoming, at times fascinatingly so, on the internal drama of Federer, of her fear of Venus Williams, of whether life is better with or without a tennis racquet in her right hand and why Wimbledon has driven her to make the comeback.

So let us make this clear, because in an interview with Henin, she likes to deal in clarity. Her comeback is nothing to do with Kim Clijsters' recent phenomenally successful US Open-winning return. Not at all, she says. It is because of Federer.

On June 7, she watched a TV broadcast of a tennis match for the first time since her retirement 13 months earlier. She had not been interested before then. She was so uninterested that, in that time, she had only hit balls twice and those were attempts at social tennis with friends.

But Federer had won everything going apart from Roland Garros and she wished him well, and so she decided to watch. And, as he at last sealed a French Open title, says Henin, "I started to feel something strange."

She describes this as a "little voice inside me" that so surprised her that "for the first few days, I didn't want to hear it". These words are very personal: "I couldn't believe that this thing inside my heart that I thought was dead was coming back -- this thought that I could walk on the court again."

So she ignored it for a while, but the voice grew stronger. "Finally," she says, "I had the courage to put on my cap and take my racquet and go on the court and try and see how it felt. And that very first time, I felt it, I still had the passion." The cap is significant, she says. "One of my friends saw me wearing the cap and said: 'Now I know'.''

Henin would like such certainty and clarity always, you feel, but recognises that it is not always possible. In her first tennis life, she could not see beyond what she calls her "bubble".

She remembers Christmas in 2007, spent with her family: "Important moments I couldn't enjoy. We had a good night but my mind was somewhere else, on the next tournament, thinking that in two days I leave for Australia."

It was often like that. "I could be with my friends or family, but not there," she says. She also experienced a considerable identity crisis.

"I really thought tennis was the only thing I could do and in the last six months of my career, I wasn't proud any more of my talent or the sacrifices I was making." Eventually, sealed inside the bubble, unable to "get away and get oxygen", she decided to break free. And because the desire was "dead", she really thought, at 25, that retirement was complete, that she would never be back.

Back in the old days when she could not stop to think, she presumed she was okay with Wimbledon, or rather without Wimbledon, the one Grand Slam title to have eluded her.

"I never thought Wimbledon would make me happier," she says. She thought that what mattered was the journey of her career, the hard work, the teamwork, the team around her -- and they did matter. But she kidded herself into thinking that -- and three of the four Slams -- was enough. The day Federer completed his full set, she realised it was not.

"The comeback is not all about Wimbledon but it's a big part of it," she says. "The French Open is the tournament of my heart; there's been a long love story for me there. But Wimbledon is the one I never won and it's going to be my challenge now. I'll never give up."

Only out of the bubble has she really stopped "to analyse why I never won it". Her conclusions are honest: "Because I didn't have enough confidence in myself as a grass-court player. Because I am always scared of playing the Williams sisters on grass, especially Venus."

Henin's fear of Venus hit its peak in 2007. "Part of the reason I lost to (Marion) Bartoli in the semi-final was because I was scared to face Venus in the final," she says.

This is fascinating. Henin spent her life proving that a lightweight could compete with the modern heavyweights, but it turns out that she never completely believed it herself.

"When I was younger, not a lot of people thought I could be a great player because I was so small," she says. "Every time I had to play (the Williams sisters), I was always scared I couldn't compete with their power." Now she believes it will be different.

She will play her first WTA event at this week's Brisbane International and will also play in Sydney before the Australian Open, which starts on January 18.

And she will return in a different frame of mind, she will reside both inside and out of the bubble, she hopes to be herself more in public -- "far away from the serious pro image you see on the court, I am very funny and I talk all the time" -- and "I will always know now that I am someone else before being a tennis player".

She will also tackle Wimbledon in a different frame of mind. She might seek to plan her campaign differently, she may play more grass-court tennis; anything to build the confidence she needs to face the Williams sisters.

Modestly, though, she warns not to expect too much too soon. "I'm probably 70pc now," she says, which is not bad given that she beat the world No 12, Flavia Pennetta, in an exhibition match recently.

When will she be 100pc? "I hope by mid-season next year," she says. Which sounds pretty much like Wimbledon. (© The Times, London)

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport