Time Alone Lets Henin Rediscover Herself
By JULIET MACUR
Published: September 10, 2007
Late yesterday afternoon, one day after becoming the United States Open champion, Justine Henin could finally rest.
Her interviews and photo shoots were done. In a corner of a garden next to Arthur Ashe Stadium, far from the chaos of the men’s final on center court, she collapsed into an Adirondack chair.
Henin, 25, leaned back to soak up the sun in silence.
“Ah, this is the first time I’ve been able to be alone, and it’s great,” Henin said as she let out a long, deep breath. “It’s hard to realize what happened until you have time alone like this.”
After a long season and a long Open, during which she beat both Williams sisters to make the final, Henin had reasons to exhale.
In June, she won the French Open. On Saturday night, she beat Svetlana Kuznetsova for the seventh major title of her career. But it was the exhausting yet exhilarating changes in her personal life that have made this season so memorable.
At the start of the year, Henin, from Belgium, skipped the Australian Open while going through a divorce. In April, after one of her brothers survived a near-fatal car accident, she reconciled with her father and two brothers after seven years apart.
With burdens lifted, Henin, the world’s No. 1 player, began to transform. Once known for being standoffish and guarded, the Justine the public never knew was unveiled: the adrenaline junkie who loves skydiving, the singer whose notes echo in the shower, the aunt who longs to hold her 4-month-old niece, Kiara.
On the court, Henin changed, too.
“She used to be wound up so tightly, and you could tell she was playing with so much more joy,” the broadcaster Patrick McEnroe said. “I think that new attitude is really helping her game. She has the potential to be one of the greatest of all time.”
While members of her family saw her win her fourth French Open title in Paris, Henin came to New York without them. But she was fine on her own.
No longer did the raucousness of the city put her on the defensive or drain her of energy. No longer did the stadium noise clash with her shy personality. This time, she embraced it.
“I felt a great difference this time in New York with my fans and the people coming up to me much more easily than in the past,” she said. “They weren’t scared of bothering me. I feel much more relaxed than in the past.”
Her longtime coach, Carlos Rodriguez, sat back and knew this was what Henin needed.
He was the one who had pushed her to let down her defenses and let the world know her real personality. He was also the one to encourage her to re-establish contact with her immediate family, saying family — not tennis — should be her priority.
For years, Rodriguez was also the one to try to build up Henin’s independence and get her to stand on her own. Henin finally listened, Rodriguez said.
“This was a much different story than in Paris because here, she did it alone, nobody, no family, was here to help her,” he said. “I told her: ‘You know how to do these amazing things. You can do things for yourself.’
“So I pushed her to do it here and at home,” he added. “I pushed her not to stay with me or my family every single day, not to always look for other people. I said, ‘You need this if you want to grow and develop.’ ”
So, Henin stepped forward and won the title, appreciating it more than ever because of what it represented.
“For the first time, I had the feeling that I did this just for me,” she said.
Henin said that again yesterday afternoon as she sat outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, waiting for a van to take her to the airport.
She was dressed in a white T-shirt and dark jeans, her blond hair tied back in a simple ponytail, her face devoid of makeup.
“This is the best time of my life,” she said, smiling.