Will Justine Henin Find What She’s Looking For?

My column on AOL Fanhouse

What I remember best about Justine Henin at the Australian Open in 2010, when she was starting her comeback, was the freshness, the beauty.

Her backhand and artistic style were always special. But her thoughts, her words were poetic. She was so deeply introspective about herself and her two years away from the game. Before that, honestly, she had not always been overly likeable.

“We all have different kinds of issues personally,” she said. “I had to forget a little about tennis and just get some air and breathe differently. Tennis has been my whole life. I think there is something else than that …

“Probably the answer I got is that I started to trust myself much more as a person, and I realized I could exist without tennis.”

But now, just one year later, she has left the game again, citing a torn elbow ligament.

Earlier this week, she said she was “in mourning” about it, that it felt like a sentence.

What happened? More importantly, that balance in life she was talking about a year ago …

Is it still there? Can she rely on it for the rest of her life?

When Henin retired the first time, as the best player in the world about to go into her best tournament, the French Open, people couldn’t understand. This retirement is seen as much more natural.

I don’t know. This one seems awkward to me. Her quotes don’t add up. Her thoughts aren’t fluid or poetic. Her timing is odd.

What I’m saying is this: I wonder if Henin is lost. And maybe she has been all along.

We’ve seen so many athletes who don’t know what to do with themselves when their playing days are up. They’re still young, with a lot of time to go. But their goals reached, and no clue about what other mountains to climb.

Henin is just 28. And now she is off into the big world to do what exactly? I doubt she knows.

I would not be surprised if she comes back again.

I’ll admit I might be reading her wrong. I hope I am. This is a gut feeling. We don’t get to really know too many athletes deep down. Maybe it’s as simple as the grind of the tennis tour was burning her out the first time around in her career. Then, she took a break of nearly two years that refreshed her.

Now, she’s hurt and can go back to whatever life was offering her fulfillment during her first retirement. 

But this second retirement just seems strange. She did it while the Australian Open was still being played, trumping others, especially Kim Clijsters. Surely, the press in Belgium had to be focusing on Henin’s failed comeback rather than Clijsters’ thriving one.

Going into the tournament, with so many writers wanting to make her a favorite, Henin kept saying she would need months to be at her peak. She had been out roughly seven months with her elbow injury.

But she clearly was trying to lower expectations and pressure.

During the tournament, Henin said this: “Now, I can say I’m getting there. Slowly, but surely, I’m almost healthy.”

And this: “Mentally, I think it’s great for me that I have to come through. I think after this very difficult time, the day I will be free of that, I think I’m going to be much stronger also mentally.”

A few days later, after losing in the third round to Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4, 7-6 (10-8), she was gone.

I do not doubt that Henin is really hurt, but only that it would have been enough to finish off her career. She just never was the same as she had been. She was not nearly as tough.

This time last year, I figured Henin was heading back to No. 1, getting all the way to the final of the Australian Open shortly after coming back, barely losing to Serena Williams.

But in Indian Wells, Henin went back to her unlikeable self, losing a match, and then huffing off without even waving to a crowd that was giving her applause. The tension was building.

In Miami, she lost to Clijsters in a third-set tiebreaker, and some people thought it was among the best matches of the year. Let me say this: I was there. The match was awful. Both players were choking terribly. Henin got nervous, too, at the French Open, where she was expected to make her mark again. That was a big moment.

Her comeback wasn’t making sense anymore. She didn’t seem to be having that much fun anymore. Where was the balance in life that was going to lead to her calm?

You wondered if the real reason she had come back was that she didn’t have anything else to do. She had helped charities and traveled the world, but maybe that wasn’t fulfilling.

But now she wasn’t comfortable on the court anymore, either.

This second retirement came so abruptly. Why not give the elbow a little more time?

Well, this was a failed comeback, but it doesn’t hurt Henin’s spot in history. She is one of the greatest players ever, and she even bypassed the Williams sisters for a while.

Mostly, I think Henin is the greatest overachiever in tennis history, under 5-foot-6 with that little body as power overtook the game.

Her body and mind had to run full speed at all times, and both took too much of a beating.

“Today, I’m calmer and I can create a positive and rewarding look back on this experience in my life,” she wrote on her website in a letter to her fans. “On the way to new adventures … see you, anywhere. Justine.”

Here’s to hoping those adventures will be enough for her.

Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch


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About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

4 responses to “Will Justine Henin Find What She’s Looking For?

  • arthurlevine

    The tough, competitive, “unlikable” Justine was the one who won.
    Maybe she needed to be that way to be her very best, “me (and Carlos) against the world.
    Having grown up, gotten a taste of the outside, putting tennis into perspective, so to speak, may have robbed her of the very quality she needed to be a champion.

    Too often the more well-rounded human beings make the worst athletes. It is not life and death for them.
    Clijsters seems like a notable exception. But in her case, she’s just such a great athlete. Had she been balls to the wall about it, she would have been even better than she has been, for longer.

    • gregcouch

      Very interesting. I thought Justine came back more well-rounded, and changed. But as the year went on, she seemed pretty much the same to me. I fear she is overwhelmed by life on tour and unsatisfied by life off of it. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.

  • Ernest

    She may be all of those things but also remember how she is one of few tennis players that cheated in front of thousands of people but didn’t get away with it…

    • gregcouch

      I assume you’re talking about Henin raising her hand before Serena’s serve. Yes, that was low class on Henin’s part. I’m not sure it was exactly “cheating” but it was certainly unethical and wrong

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