The quiet champion: Return of the enigma
After two months off following the breakdown of her marriage, the famously private Justine Henin is back. She tells Paul Newman why she is determined to put a difficult period behind her and how she is ready to adapt her game to stay at the top
Published: 21 March 2007
It was as though the intervening four months had never happened. The Women's Tennis Association's updated world rankings were published on Monday, with Justine Henin sitting proudly on top of the list, just as she had in November, when the 24-year-old Belgian crowned the most successful year of her life by reclaiming her No 1 spot with victory in the season-ending WTA Championships in Madrid.
The bare statistics, however, conceal another remarkable chapter in the life of one of the modern game's most enigmatic players. Within weeks of lifting the WTA crown for the first time, Henin, an intensely private person, announced the breakdown of her marriage, pulled out of the Australian Open, lost the world No 1 ranking it had taken her more than two years to regain and admitted that tennis was the last thing on her mind. Two months later, however, she was back on the circuit and her return has been so successful that she goes into this week's Sony Ericsson Open in Miami as the world's leading player once again.
It has taken some unexpected help from Maria Sharapova, who has had an indifferent run since taking over as No 1 in January, but nobody should doubt the fire in Henin's eyes. Victories in her last two tournaments have been proof of the Belgian's determination to build on her successes in 2006, when she became the first player since Steffi Graf in 1993 to reach the finals of all four Grand Slam tournaments and the WTA Championships in the same year, retained her French Open crown and reached the finals of 10 of the 13 tournaments she played, winning six of them.
If it is tempting to suggest that Henin is using her professional life to put her private problems behind her, the player is having none of it. "I've never used tennis as a way to forget about something else," she said. "I just try to face reality. Tennis is something I love so much and that's why I didn't want to lose too much time away from the court. It's been my life for nearly 20 years and it will be for a few years yet."
Balancing private and professional lives is a challenge for anyone in the public eye, particularly those who spend such long periods away from home, but in Henin's case there was every reason to fear that the breakdown of her four-year marriage to Pierre-Yves Hardenne would have a particularly traumatic effect.
For years Henin's family life has been clouded by controversy following an extraordinary rift with her father and other male relatives. Henin's mother, to whom she was very close, died when she was 12 and five years later she left the family home for good, cutting off all ties with her father and two elder brothers, for reasons which have never been made public. The only members of the family who attended her wedding in 2002, four years after she had met Pierre-Yves, were two aunts; her father, two brothers, sister, grandparents and paternal uncles were not invited.
Within a year of their marriage, Hardenne was talking about the difficulties of living in his wife's shadow. Henin herself made occasional references to the pressures they were under, but since announcing their separation in January has steadfastly refused to talk about it. While her compatriot and great rival, Kim Clijsters, is an open and bubbly individual with a smile never far from her face, Henin remains guarded, serious and defensive.
"I want to keep my private life private," she said. "I'm sure a lot of people can understand that. There are always people who are curious and want to know why and who, but it's my life and everybody has to respect that. We all have the same rights. I'm a public person and I understand that perfectly.
"We can talk about tennis, but as soon as I'm away from the tennis court then my life is private and I think I should be able to keep it to myself. It's like it's my secret garden. Why should I be any different, just because I'm a famous tennis player? I'm human and I'm a person before I'm a tennis player."
However, those who know Henin have expressed fears for her future. Dominique Monami, who in 1998 became the first Belgian woman (as Dominique Van Roost before her own divorce five years later) to reach the world's top 10, told La Libre Belgique: "I know Justine personally. She's the sort of woman who asks herself a lot of questions and who needs to be rock-solid mentally to win her matches. Pierre-Yves's departure will leave an enormous hole in her life."
She added: "Every couple must find a balance. The imbalance here was just too great. Pierre-Yves didn't have a role. At the start her entourage wanted to give him a role, but it didn't work. He was only her husband. At best he carried her water bottles for her.
"These two young people were catapulted from an ordinary lifestyle into an abnormal world full of excesses. Pierre-Yves certainly tried to find an identity by giving tennis lessons and by learning to fly planes, but he didn't find a career for himself that way."
Henin is continuing to live in Monte Carlo, where she set up home with her husband. "There were a number of reasons for living there, but one of the main ones was that I needed to find a place where I could live normally," she said. "It's quiet for me in Monte Carlo. People certainly recognise me, but they don't bother me and aren't interested in my life. I can go shopping or to the restaurant or to the movies just like anyone else."
Returning to the public eye has not been easy for one who so jealously guards her privacy, but Henin reached the semi-finals in her comeback tournament in Paris last month, took the Dubai title for the fourth time by beating Amélie Mauresmo and followed that with victory in Doha, where she overcame Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final.
"I feel better about things now," Henin said. "I'm trying to take things step by step. It will take time. It's been a difficult period in my life, but I'm trying to come back strongly in my tennis. I just need to accept that it might take a bit of time. I haven't forgotten how to play tennis. I just need to control my emotions a little bit."
Henin's late withdrawal from the Australian Open had taken everybody by surprise - her kit manufacturers had even designed a special outfit to help her cope with the Melbourne heat - and she said the men's final was the only match she subsequently watched on television. "I was busy and my mind wasn't on the game," she said. "I had other things to think about emotionally."
Had missing Melbourne been a major disappointment? "Yes, but sometimes in life some things are more important than others. At that time of my life I had other things to do. I was very far away from tennis. Now I can say I missed the game a lot, but at that time in January I didn't want to play."
Henin thought Serena Williams's victory in Australia was good for women's tennis but has given little thought to the challenge the American might provide at future Grand Slam events. "I'm far away from that," she said. "I'm going to try to think about myself, focus on my person and my game. It's hard enough doing that, so I don't want to look too much at what the others are going to do. I don't want to fight against myself. I just want to fight against the other players."
In her determination to stay at the top Henin is ready to make significant changes to her game. She has reached the pinnacle by playing from the baseline, scurrying to all corners of the court to retrieve the ball and attacking on the counter, but accepts that her slight frame puts her at a physical disadvantage against many opponents. Last year she began to approach the net more and sees this as the way ahead.
"That's the way I won the Championships in Madrid at the end of last year. I won because I took my opportunities and I wasn't staying on the baseline. I have to find a good balance. It's the game that I need to play if I'm to stay on the tour for a long time.
"Physically I'm not going to stay healthy if I have to do too much running on the court. I know that. I've proved that in the past. I want to be on the tour for a few more years. I just have to find a good balance between being aggressive, showing my opponent that I'm going to take my opportunities, and being patient."
Had her recent problems ever made her think of following the example of Clijsters, who will retire at the end of this year? "No. I know that tennis is now the most important thing in my life. I totally understand Kim's choice, but for myself at this age I feel it's very young. If you have the talent and you stay healthy and have the opportunity to do what you love so much, I want to enjoy that time of my life. One day it will be time for me to do something else."