Henin outworked her competition to achieve greatness
One of the many things I'll remember about Justine Henin, who retired unexpectedly from tennis on Wednesday, is how she would talk about her mother taking her to the French Open when she was a young girl, and years after her mother passed away, how she won the event in her honor. It always struck an emotional chord with me when she would look skyward at Roland Garros in memory of her mother.
Henin dominated on the clay in Paris, winning four of the last five French Opens, including the last three in a row. In an era of women's tennis that is defined by stronger and bigger athletes taking over -- to the point where Martina Hingis rationalized retiring due to her inability to fight the trend -- Henin refused to concede. Similar to Jim Courier, she outworked the competition. Rare was the tournament that I didn't run into her in the gym. She was the definition of a gym rat, and her increased physical strength helped her overcome some of her mental frailties to the point that the results were staggering. She won seven majors, with only Wimbledon escaping her, and she had been the World's No. 1 ranked player for 117 weeks when she decided to call it quits.
The trademark of her game was her backhand. Never has a female player of her size contorted her body with such artistry and produced such an effective shot. Her backhand was a true testament to her impeccable timing and technical precision. During a Wimbledon telecast I once heard John McEnroe, himself the ultimate artist, describe Henin's backhand as "one of the great shots in tennis."
The timing and circumstances of her retirement are eerily similar to those of another dominant European tennis star, Bjorn Borg, who walked away from the game when he was 26. He and Henin were similar in the way they pushed their physical capabilities to the maximum on a daily basis, so much so that it's understandable that this type of intensity would lead to a quicker burnout than for players who pace themselves. I, for one, doubt that Henin or Borg would have enjoyed playing tennis at any level less than their best. And in order to do that, they surely realized their commitment to the whole process, both physically and mentally, had to be unwavering. When they realized they could no longer give that effort, they knew it was time to move on.
By her own lofty standards, Henin had a lackluster start to 2008, with a one-sided loss to Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open semifinals and a similar defeat to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Sony Ericcson Open. She withdrew from numerous events this year, including Doha and Charleston, and when she returned to the Sony Ericcson WTA Tour last week in Germany, she was upset by Dinara Safina.
With her favorite tournament on the horizon, the three-time defending French Open champion concluded that she no longer had the adrenaline the tournament normally evokes and that the work no longer matched the reward.
Later in my career, when I was doing some commentating and writing, I always appreciated Henin's willingness to give earnest, heartfelt answers to questions, regardless if they had to do with her upcoming opponent, her training routine or a previous performance. I have great respect for her, and at a time when the Tour needs more champions, it is losing a big one.
The lone question in my mind is not if, but when, Henin will be drawn back to the game. Almost every athlete feels the pull to get back to doing what they love and what they have been conditioned to do since such an early age. Unless Henin finds something she is truly passionate about, she will inevitably find herself yearning for a singular daily purpose. That is the beauty and curse of tennis: it demands so much and can give so much, but at what cost?
Here's hoping the sport didn't exact too great a price from Henin, who will go down as one of the best tennis players of all-time, a first ballot Hall of Famer who defines greatness. I wish her all the happiness in her post-tennis career.