Henin relishes new title fight
Henin relishes new title fight
By Clive White
Like the prizefighter stripped of his championship belts for something that happened outside the ring rather than inside it, so Justine Henin-Hardenne has been forced to relinquish her three grand slam titles in the past 12 months after a virus left her incapable of defending them. Now she wants them back, starting with the French Open tomorrow.
Unlike Muhammad Ali, though, she is not about to roll up at Roland Garros in a tracksuit with the words People's Champion emblazoned across the back. She's far too modest for that and too respectful of her opponents' ability, particularly as women's tennis has never been more competitive. But the self-belief and desire, present before cytomegalovirus took a grip on her everyday life for six months, is still intact and bolstered by three consecutive tournament wins since her return in late March.
To achieve that she needed more than a talent that includes the most aesthetically pleasing shot in tennis - her single-handed backhand - she needed guts, lots of them, which is something that has always set this frail, almost anaemic-looking player apart. Her long-time Argentine coach Carlos Rodriguez thought the recent Berlin tournament was a tournament too far in her recovery programme.
She proved otherwise and unseated the would-be queen of tennis Maria Sharapova with a performance that may well have left its mark upon the young Russian before their projected quarter-final in Paris. ''I'm a fighter, a real fighter," she said with a laugh that did nothing to detract from the sincerity of her remark. "I love the competition, I love the pressure. That Saturday of the final at a grand slam, it's amazing. That's the way I was born."
The thought occurs that that is what also sets her apart from one of her most worthy adversaries, fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters, whose own problems with injury have run almost parallel.
It must seem to Henin-Hardenne as if she has been fighting all her life. Before she was born, her sister Florence was killed in a road accident; then, when she was 12, she lost her mother Françoise to cancer. Family stresses and strains eventually forced her to leave home when she was 17 and she remains estranged from her father and two elder brothers.
Then, last year, after her position as No 1 in the world had been cemented by a third grand slam victory in four attempts, she contracted a virus that allowed her to leave her bed for only a few hours each day. In fact, it may have taken hold earlier than last spring, possibly even before she won that third slam in Australia.
''I don't know if it was in 2004, I'm not quite sure," she said. "Even though I won the Australian Open I was feeling very tired and feeling something was wrong. Then, in Doha it came first and then in Indian Wells - it was my courage. I wanted the victory [in Indian Wells] so much. That helped me. I had bronchitis, I had many colds, I was sick very, very often and then we discovered the virus. When I was in Florida, I found it in one day. I woke up and said, 'Whoa, something is wrong'."
For someone as naturally energetic as Henin-Hardenne the illness came as a shock. Even now there is no certainty that is has completely gone. "When you're used to having a lot of energy it's hard to lay in bed and not do anything," she said. "Lot's of people have it [the virus] but some don't feel it; some have to go to hospital and some are like me. If I had a normal life I could live with that and maybe never find out that I have this kind of virus, but when you have to play tennis and when you are at the top of your game you're pushing yourself very, very far."
Many people blamed it on Henin-Hardenne's punishing training schedule in Florida and Martina Navratilova was particularly critical of her fitness coach Pat Etcheberry, whom she said had over-trained other players. Henin-Hardenne did not refute the allegations, but said she thought it was a little bit of everything. "There was the virus, the fact that I was very tired because I worked very hard in the past few years and never took a break so one day you feel it. I'm the kind of person who never says, 'Stop', even if I feel tired. I say, 'OK, that doesn't matter, I keep going', but you cannot keep going all the time, there is one day when you are going to fall down and that's what I did," she said.
She said she learned a lot of things, among them who her real friends were. Particularly supportive were her husband of two years, Pierre-Yves Hardenne, and her coach Rodriguez. "You change," she said. "I don't feel the same any more. What I did in the past has gone. I'm never going to be the same player, maybe better, maybe not, but a lot of things have changed. During the illness I lost a lot of confidence which I'm only now starting to get back. I think the dream of Carlos would be that I would be the same as Roger Federer but in women's tennis. I think I will never be as relaxed as Roger. I don't have words to explain how strong he is."
Rodriguez wants her to be more aggressive so that she can shorten the rallies and thereby conserve energy. "I know how lucky I am to be back on the courts," she said, "because maybe in the past I complained about how I wasn't playing well in practice and then Carlos told me, 'You see, it was bad because now you cannot play, you're in your bed and you cannot complain any more'. So now I try to use this experience to be a better player, to save my energy."
She is mystified by how she managed to win the gold medal at the Olympics in the midst of her illness. "I wasn't feeling my best but I think the atmosphere, which was just so unbelievable, pushed me to do what I did," she said. "It's okay to do it for one week but then all the energy I got back I lost as soon as the Olympics were done."
Playing the French Open last year, when as defending champion she lost in the second round to the unseeded Tathiana Garbin, was a big mistake though, she admitted. "I shouldn't have gone there, I wasn't ready for that, but it was too hard for myself to say, 'OK, I'm not ready, I'm not going'."
While she has been away the Russians have made hay but haven't raised the bar in any way. Henin-Hardenne said she knew they were coming, having played against Anastasia Myskina, her successor as French Open champion, and Elena Dementieva, last year's runner-up, as youngsters. Unlike Serena Williams and Sharapova, who seem to have a problem speaking favourably about their opponents, Henin-Hardenne does so without compunction.
''I think anybody can win the grand slams this year," she said. "It's going to be very exciting and interesting to have different kinds of winners, different kinds of games. The public were getting a little tired of it. There were the Williams sisters, then there was Kim and me and then the Russians. Mixing up all the players could be very good for the sport."
Spoken like a true champion who is ready to take on all-comers.
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