Whatever it takes to win (cont.)
Posted: Wednesday May 30, 2007 5:23PM; Updated: Wednesday May 30, 2007 5:23PM
It might well have been the Jankovic incident, except for an even more dramatic of Henin's seeming inability to lose in a sporting manner. Down 6-1, 2-0 in the '06 Australian Open final, Henin retired because of stomach cramps, thus denying her onetime friend Amélie Mauresmo the triumph of winning her first Grand Slam championship point.
"It's a legacy that she's leaving -- or hurting -- by possibly always having an out," tour vet Rennae Stubbs said of Henin after the Jankovic match. "By an out, I mean an injury or an excuse: 'Why I didn't win the match today.' She's such a great competitor and wants to win all the time, but if she's not? It seems she has that little mechanism in her head to say, 'Yeah, but, I'm sick today ... or something.'
"But every single player has something out there that's bothering them, and they don't make it as obvious. I did notice her grimacing at 4-2 in that match -- and then all of a sudden she's, Allez!, Allez! Allez! in the third set and banging down aces and running around like a jackrabbit."
A finalist in all four Grand Slams in '06, Henin is the defending champ of this year's French Open and, on-court anyway, a model of consistency for a tour bedeviled by injuries and its endlessly distracted stars. Yet her personality presents the most confounding mesh in the game: a champion who, no matter how much she succeeds, always seems like an underdog, a fierce survivor willing to employ even the most cynical means to win.
Henin is never clearly the villain or the hero in the day's tennis drama, but a messy mix of both, capable of inspiring admiration and a sneaking suspicion almost simultaneously.
For the record, Henin insisted after the Jankovic match that her back hurt the entire time, and that she would never fake an injury. But she had no regrets about that match or the walkabout that ruptured her relationship with Mauresmo, and she isn't interested in what the world thinks.
"No, I would do exactly the same," Henin said. "[In Australia] maybe I wouldn't have walked on the court. But I would have stopped for sure. I know how I can fight on the tennis court; I'm a real competitor. The most difficult for me there was to say, 'I stop.' It's an awful feeling. It would've been much easier to say, 'I keep playing a few more games.' But that's not me. I need to be honest with myself."
Still, the French Open is always the best place to take the Belgian's measure, because it's the Grand Slam closest to home and heart. In 1992, the 10-year-old Justine sat in the stands at Roland Garros and told her dying mother, Françoise, she'd play there one day; three of Henin's five Grand Slam titles have since been won on the terre battue.
It's also apt that her first major title, in '03, coincided with the unveiling of her steely ambition before the always-contentious Paris crowd. After the incident with Williams then, the conversation on Henin instantly changed. She went from being tennis' Heartbreak Kid to Machiavelli in a skirt, and fans have had a hard time trusting her intentions ever since.
This year? Henin turns 25 on Friday. "Life on the circuit is a bit of a jungle," she said last autumn, but now the place can only seem even more dense and dark. There's a dramatic showdown with Williams looming in the quarterfinals, and an equally intriguing rematch with Jankovic in the semis. It's usually fun to anticipate the resumption of old controversies, but not this year.
Henin is the loneliest figure in the game. Her entourage is tiny. Long estranged from her father, Jose, and three siblings, she separated from her husband of four years, Pierre-Yves Hardenne, over the winter, and opened her '07 Grand Slam season with only her coach of a decade, Carlos Rodriguez, and his two children for company.
Tennis is Henin's one constant. She always speaks dismissively about her personal troubles -- "I just move on" -- but it's easy to see her toughness as a shield against her own grinding neuroses; she can't afford to engage. If Henin were ever to truly consider all she has lost while realizing her childhood promise, the woman's career -- along with her emotional gears -- might just grind to a halt.
"I'm very generous -- very, very generous with the people around me," she said. "But I need a lot of things in my life and I keep a lot of things for myself. And I don't play the games other people play. It's different for me, and I'm pretty proud of it. I like when people say, 'We don't know her that much.' It's better this way."
As always, Henin smiled when she said this, the same smile that she employs like a fortified wall. She looked happy. You'd swear she believed every word.