Joshua Gibson praises the rare creature that is Justine Henin’s game.
To watch Justine Henin play tennis was to see something at once indestructible and fragile. She was a creature of another era, emerging from Belgium like a coelacanth from the deep. In a time when her contemporaries were increasingly tall, muscular and strong, Henin was only 5’6″; there didn’t seem to be a place for such a player eight years ago. (Speed and a beautiful backhand will only get you so far, even if that backhand is the most technically-perfect backhand in the sport, men’s included.) Henin should have been crushed, left to linger somewhere in the top 20. But she refused this offer. She wanted to be the best. And for much of the last five years she has been the best.
The numbers only begin to do her justice: Four French Opens, including the last three. Twice US and once Australian champion. 117 weeks at world number one, with no end in sight. The top player on the tour at year’s end three times. Even now, after a bruising start to the year, she is more than 1600 points ahead of the world No. 2 (Maria Sharapova) in the SEWTA rankings.
How did she do it? By perfecting the technical aspects of her game, to start with. Knowing the limits of her physical strength (she could never overpower the likes of Serena Williams), she made sure that her groundstrokes were perfectly executed. She made up for size and power with elegant strokes that left her opponents struggling. But again, these technical elements alone, even if consistently performed, can only do so much damage to her stronger and taller peers.
So Henin turned to the only other weapon she had in more abundance that any player on the Tour: cunning. Like Martina Hingis before her, Henin had a heightened sense of anticipating opponents’ shots. She also knew how to construct points, rarely going for the early winner. She could control the points even when she looked like she was down for the count, keeping the ball in play, waiting like a coiled viper ready to strike. Tennis players tend to be smart people with minds built around strategy, but Henin was another thing altogether. Justine’s brain was her biggest muscle.
Justine used this muscle for focus, too — she never went away. At last year’s US Open, she defeated the Williams sisters in consecutive matches. She had a chance to serve for the first set and blew it. But going back on serve so late in the set against top players didn’t rattle her. In the tie-breaks, Justine took full control and never looked back, using that 7-6 first set as a springboard to dominant second sets.
She was the most courageous player on the tour, taking the risks when she needed to and rarely, if ever, looking intimidated. The Williamses and Sharapovas of the world succeed not only on their strength but also on the fear this strength instills in opponents. At the press conference after her loss to Serena Willaims in Miami this year, Jelena Jankovic responded to a question about Serena’s power by saying, “Oh, my God. Just hit a winner, but away from me. I don’t want to see that ball near my body or anywhere else!” Not Henin. She never blinked. She would go stroke-to-stroke against the strongest women in the game as if she were 6′ 6″.
And it’s this lack of courage that has been most lacking this year. Against the top players, and even against a number of not-so-top ones, she has crumpled under even moderate pressure. In light of her stunning retirement, it’s interesting to ponder this. Did Justine quit because she realized she’d lost something she needs to survive on court? Or did she decide on retirement long before she made a public announcement?
Last year began with the dissolution of her marriage and a reunion with her family. In the wake of putting her demons to rest, she became better than she’d ever had in the past. But a year later, it’s possible to imagine that what she really lost wasn’t her courage but the dark edge that was always lurking, only partially submerged. Henin was never cheerfully optimistic like Maria Sharapova; she never seemed truly to believe that she was as good as she was. On the court, she had the hooded eyes of an assassin. She always had something to prove — to her father, to her country, to the tennis world, to herself. After last year, what’s there left to prove? What’s there left to play for?
The departure of Justine Henin leaves the tennis world less interesting, less edgy and more monochrome and relentless. Henin, alone of contemporary players, is so utterly unique that losing her is to lose something that we may never see again. The last of the coelacanths. So let us hope that even if she never returns to the game, there is somewhere swimming far beneath the bright sunny surface of tennis another dark creature ready to emerge and dazzle us once again.
Joshua writes the blog http://fagistan.blogspot.com.