Last Modified: 1/8/2007 3:59:22 PM
Henin Hardened: Carlos Rodriguez interview
Justine Henin-Hardenne's longtime coach Carlos Rodriguez talks about life on the circuit and what he's tried to teach his pupil.
By Jorge Viale
How different things looked just two months ago. Justine Henin-Hardenne had just won the WTA year-end championships at Madrid, returned to the No. 1 spot on the rankings, and all signs pointed to her being a major force on the women’s tour in 2007.
But come the new year, the Belgian surprised the tennis world by announcing that she was pulling out of the Australian Open for “personal family reasons.” No return date was given. Press reports from her home country cited the breakup of her four-year marriage to Pierre-Yves Hardenne as the cause, something that neither Henin-Hardenne nor those around her have denied.
Ironically, after her win at Madrid, Henin-Hardenne’s coach Carlos Rodriguez had talked about her marriage philosophy, describing it as one day at a time, till the end of time. Rodriguez, speaking in Spanish after the final, said, “She revealed to me something incredible she had told Pierre-Yves – ‘I realised that, to go on together, I cannot come to terms with the idea that I’ll always be married to you. Now we are; tomorrow, who knows. That’s the way we’ll get to the end’.”
Though some opposed Justine and Pierre-Yves’ decision to get married at relatively young age, Rodriguez says he was not one of them. "Psychologically, she needed to achieve something on her own,” he said. "Her family had fallen apart and she needed to build something. Everybody was against her marriage. [But] one year after that, she became No. 1 in the world.
“It was highly important to know the context,” he added. “If 10 people ask me for advice, I won’t tell them to marry, except her and in that very moment. Five years later, I don’t know what I would have told her.”
Now, however, the departure of Pierre-Yves looks like it will again leave Rodriguez as the lone mainstay of Henin-Hardenne’s camp.
“Her mother died when she was 12. She didn’t have a good relationship with her father and brother. She was asking for help. Thank God I heard her,” said Rodriguez. He began working with Henin-Hardenne when she was 14, making theirs one of the longer player-coach relationships on the tour.
Can he be considered a second father to Justine? “It’s as if [I am] – but I’m not,” said Rodriguez. “I’m harsh toward her. She tells me, ‘What I like about you is that you have no diplomacy, but you make yourself very clear.’”
The Player-Coach Relationship
The ground rules of their partnership were laid down early. “I told her, I will be your best friend and your worst enemy,” he said. “If you want me to help you, you have to tolerate me. I will be unbearable. I will educate you so that, when you are 30 and not playing tennis anymore, people will respect you as a person, not only a tennis player.
“First, when you talk to people, you must look to their eyes. Then, every single thing I ask you to do, Justine, I give the example first. That’s how our relationship is built. If you have to eat correctly, I show you how. If I tell you not to go out, I explain why.”
Leading by example is an “important human investment,” said Rodriguez. “If you want to have a champion and have them respect you, that is the way.”
He points out that his no-nonsense attitude is accompanied by a calm manner. “Still, respect comes first," he said. "Never insult. I talk in a soft voice but I can say lots of things that will cause biggest impact this way.”
Given that they’ve been working together for more than a decade, it’s not surprising to see hints of the same modus operandi in Henin-Hardenne.
“She won the New Haven title,” Rodriguez remembered. “When she was giving her speech, the interviewer told her they were anticipating her return in 2007. She said, ‘No, the tournament doesn’t appear in my schedule.’ The crowd started booing. She promptly clarified – ‘I choose to be sincere, this tournament is held right before the [U.S.] Open and I need to rest.’ People stood and gave her an ovation. That was a priceless moment.”
Life on the WTA Tour
But, said Rodriguez, the two find the culture on the WTA Tour quite different. “I always tell Justine that when it’s no, she has to say no. But, here, it’s quite a circus, all lies, that’s strange. There’s much hypocrisy and Justine doesn’t like it,” he said bluntly. “I tell her, you live your own life and get along with girls like Kuznetsova, for example. The rest can greet but attack you when you turn round... Going out together? Why, I don’t want to see your face and neither do you.”
When it comes to Henin-Hardenne’s relationship with other players, none has been the subject of more speculation than the one with Kim Clijsters. The two compatriots have been playing each other since their junior days but tension between them has also flared publicly. What is the actual relationship? Are they friends? Just rivals?
Rodriguez points a disapproving finger at Clijsters and her father Leo. “They have accused Justine of doping and then they said they didn’t do it. I talked with Kim’s father and asked him, ‘Can you confirm this? I’m not resentful.’ But he says he didn’t say that... ‘Please don’t bother me!’
“Then we read in the paper that they are friends. Justine tells me, ‘I’m not her friend, I don’t have many friends. Kim is another player on tour, who I greet everyday.’ That’s reality. That’s the truth. Kim is a good person, but that’s what she wants you to think of her. She never apologised. From now on, it’s only hello.”
The 42-year-old, whose full name is Juan Carlos Rodriguez, describes his own playing career with similar candor. “I was the typical Argentine rat, the worst guy you could see on court,” he joked.
A claycourt grinder, he reached a career-high ranking of 467 before quitting in 1986. He has no regrets. “I tried my best to be a good player,” he said. “When I was 22, I came to terms with reality. I can remember it as if it were today. I told myself, open your eyes – that’s it. It’s tough, a dream that falls apart and, I tell you, you have to realise it all alone.”
Still, it was retirement that led him to coaching, which he soon realized was his real vocation. After reaching the quarterfinals of a challenger in Knokke-Heist, Belgium, the director of a club in the nearby town of Ghent invited to become the club pro. “Frankly, I had no clue and that’s what I told them, but they insisted, saying the people there knew and respected me. I took the chance and started to read a lot of books about the subject,” he said.
The little academy grew quickly. “In two years, with the help of a friend of mine, we went from a little tennis camp to one that hosted 250 kids in only two courts. We had to ask for more in other clubs.”
Rodriguez also began working with Belgian pros like Dick Norman and Olivier Rochus (“in juniors, he could beat all the tall kids with ease”), and then decided to stop travelling. “I had met the woman that would be my wife, Elke, and was working for the Belgian Federation,” he said. “Then, Dominique [Van Roost] Monami asked me if I could coach her”. Having climbed to No. 9 in the rankings, she asked Rodriguez to work with her full-time. But Henin-Hardenne had just arrived on the scene, and Rodriguez opted to coach the unknown teenager instead.
“Justine was only 14, nobody gave anything for her,” he remembered. “They would say I was crazy and I replied, ‘She’s going to be a good one.’ I swear to God, even the dogs wouldn’t believe me, uh? And when she was 15, she won Roland Garros in juniors.”
In between, there was much work to be done. “At first, it was difficult,” he said. “She knew what she wanted but didn’t know how to achieve it. She would eat and train bad, she didn’t have a good forehand, didn’t know how to serve. In the first physical test we did, she ducked and couldn’t reach her ankle. And she was only 14!”
But, said Rodriguez, Henin-Hardenne’s mental strength was always evident. “Her way of looking, that is what convinced me. The look of a champion is different. When you are not, it strikes you big time. I don’t know how to explain it. The way she moved, she walked.”
It’s not yet clear how Henin-Hardenne will be mentally affected by the personal turmoil in her marriage, which comes in addition to her increasing physical frailty. “The main thing for us is avoid injuries. One week before the WTA Championships, we didn’t know if Justine would be able to play,” Rodriguez admitted at Madrid.
The Belgian, now a veteran on the circuit at 26, had begun considering when she might retire – will recent events prolong her determination to continue playing or shorten it?
Either way, Rodriguez plans to end of his career as a touring coach when Henin-Hardenne retires. “Justine will play for four or five years more and I’ll not be working with pro players any longer,” he said. “Twenty years on the pro circuit is enough for me.
“I’ve got an academy in Belgium, where I train little kids, from 6 to 12 years old. It’s rewarding, children are the best thing in this world,” he said. A second academy has since been opened, with a third to follow later this year.
Rodriguez added that Henin-Hardenne has also played a role here. “Justine wants to give the new generation the possibilities she didn’t have,” he said. “She bought the academy and set it up so that I could have a job apart from coaching her. It was an incredible gift.”