Wimbledon the missing peace in a tumultous life story
Tuesday June 20, 2006
"Sometimes I think I might be the oldest 24-year-old in the world," Justine Henin-Hardenne says with a faint smile. In the midst of explaining how she survived terrible adversity to emerge as the most iron-willed competitor in women's tennis, with her recent domination of the French Open lending more weight to the belief that she is finally ready to win Wimbledon, Henin-Hardenne seems to feel the trauma of her past with renewed intensity. "I was 12 when my mother died and my sister was only eight," she says, "which is not a good age to lose a parent. So even now there is not an hour in my life when I don't think of my mum. I know I will never recover from that experience."
</IMG>She shrugs gently, and looks away, as if any other reaction would be almost unbearable. On a muggy afternoon in Eastbourne, as the familiar thwack of tennis balls being hit hard and true merges with the muted applause of a genteel crowd, it is plain that the impact of her mother's death in 1994 still haunts Henin-Hardenne. That hurt is deepened by her estrangement from the rest of her family in Belgium and a brutal illness which almost ruined her in 2004.
Henin-Hardenne turns back and smiles more clearly. "What do you do? Do you just give up? No. I always try to find something positive, and so I can say that I'm the same person I was before my mother died - only much stronger. To survive you keep going - that's the only secret to life, because we will all lose someone we love. That's why everyone has a story."
She might have climbed back to No3 in the official Sony Ericsson world rankings, and just won her fifth grand slam title, but her more personal story resonates far beyond the insular women's tour. It is a story which is illustrated best by the intimate image of her mother, Françoise, sitting on the edge of Justine's bath most nights in the last year of her life. Looking down into her daughter's serious but youthful face, which would be wet with bath-water rather than tears, Françoise knew she was dying of cancer but "she never showed that to us. She wanted to teach me instead to believe in my dreams because she gave up everything for her kids. And so, even when she was dying, the only thing that scared her was the thought of leaving us."
In 1992 Françoise Henin had crossed the French border and driven all the way to Paris with her daughter. Justine was only 10 but she and her mother shared an evocative day at Roland Garros, on the Saturday of an epic French Open final which was finally won, 10-8 in the third, by Monica Seles - who beat Steffi Graf, Justine's idol. Eleven years later, on the day the now married Henin-Hardenne won her own first grand slam in Paris, she "warmed up for the final that morning and I kept looking over at the spot near the umpire's chair where my mother and I had sat together in 1992. My coach [Carlos Rodriguez] could tell something was happening to me and so I showed him the seats where we had watched that match. And I thought of that day just a couple of weeks ago when I won the French again."
In cruising to her third French Open title this month, without dropping a set, Henin-Hardenne looked ready to build a legacy which could one day be compared with some of her most illustrious predecessors. "I've won five grand slams now and, if you gave me the chance, I'd sign for another five right now. But what Steffi, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert did in winning so many more was phenomenal. I don't think anyone will achieve what they did. They were great champions and we have to be realistic. This is also a different era of tennis and I look more at Venus Williams and [Martina] Hingis, who've also won five. My goal is to win a few more and I believe I can actually win Wimbledon, which is a big passion of mine" - comparable perhaps to Roger Federer's to win the French title.
Henin-Hardenne takes particular pride in stressing that her first grand slam final came on the grass of SW19 rather than the dirt of Paris. She also offers up another tangled family memory to heighten its meaning to her.
"I think people forget that I made it to the Wimbledon final in 2001 - two years before the French. That match was supposed to be a big party in my life - but everyone I knew in the stands looked very sad. I knew it couldn't be for my match because I took Venus Williams to three sets. I guessed something else was wrong and then they told me just after my press conference - I had lost my grandfather that day. He was almost the last family member on my mother's side who had still been alive and so it was very painful.
"He was 81 but he seemed in great shape and he drove to lots of my tournaments. The last time we spoke was when I called after I beat [Jennifer] Capriati in the semis. He was so happy for me, and so proud, that I'm glad he knew I made it to the final. He always believed in me and never judged my decisions."
Others in her family were less forgiving - especially of her decision, at the age of 17, to leave her overbearing father, two brothers and younger sister to live instead with Pierre-Yves Hardenne, a 21-year-old Belgian tennis coach. After describing her departure "as like leaving prison", and marrying Pierre-Yves in November 2002, the strained relationship with her family collapsed.
She looks guarded at the thought of one day seeing Sarah, her younger sister. "It's something . . ." she begins, before faltering briefly. "Well, it's difficult. I don't really get a chance to see her. We'll see . . . I don't know."
"And your dad?" I wonder. "I don't want to talk about him," she says firmly, but with a placatory wave of her hand to show that she does not wish to sound too clipped.
There has been so much darkness in her life, in a tennis career which is otherwise burnished with titles and plaudits, that it seems cruel to probe further. It is enough to ask how she feels physically - for even here there has been tribulation. Apart from a catalogue of injuries, some of which resulted from her battle to overcome far stronger and bigger women, Henin-Hardenne suffered her greatest ordeal in 2004 when she was stricken with cytomegalovirus - an illness which left her bereft of all energy. She was pinned down by a need to sleep for 18 hours a day and an inertia so debilitating she could barely raise an arm to clean her teeth.
"I thought it was the end of my tennis. Even as a person I could feel myself changing. I just wanted to stay at home and not see anyone, not even my friends. It was another tough time - not just in my career but my life. But, slowly, I got better. I still have to be very careful and I can't train or work as hard as I once did. But I have a great team around me and I get checked every two months."
Improved health has sharpened her desire for that first Wimbledon title. And right now it appears as if no one in women's tennis can match her steely purpose or the sheer voracity of her appetite for success. "I think the mental side will be very important at Wimbledon. These championships, like the whole of women's tennis right now, are wide open.
"I would say that six or seven girls have a big chance to win. There is no obvious favourite this year and, on grass, we're all so close. But I always fight, maybe harder than anyone, and never give up. And that's very important on grass because it's a frustrating surface. I've already done well at Wimbledon - with a final and two semis - and I'm much better now than I was then. Wimbledon is a big dream of mine because I've won all the other grand slam tournaments. So I really will try to win it this time."
Her anticipation is so palpable that I wonder if she can sustain such intensity for many more years. "I'll always be like this," she insists. "I'm totally intense in everything - with tennis, my husband, my coach and my friends. If I do something I give everything of myself. If you are my best friend I will expect to call you every day, and we speak for an hour at least. I know it helps me - that's why I'm on the phone all the time talking to everyone I love."
She sinks back into her chair and, for once looking and sounding like an ordinary 24-year-old, laughs softly when I ask if controlling that famous compulsion has been the hardest aspect of her slow road back to full health. "Definitely. I now know how important it is to take time off and not push myself too far. I need to give my body time to recover and I'm learning how to do that. Maybe that's the best sign that I'm starting to mature as a person. I also have good people around me - which is why I'm very happy right now." That happiness will be complete at Wimbledon if all the heartache she has endured over the last 12 years is stripped down into one more burst of searing commitment which sees her lift the greatest prize in women's tennis. "Oh," she says in amazement, as if a bright light has suddenly switched on inside her, "if I actually win Wimbledon it would feel very special. It would feel like this story has a very happy ending."