- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Justine Henin danced into position, raised her racket high. Spectators reached for their bags, ready to clap and leave, because it was match point and the ball was a fat pigeon dropping from the Florida sky, a routine overhead to seal a routine win in a routine first-round match. Henin planted, waited ... began her downswing. It was over. Only two people in the crowded stadium had any doubt.
The first was Henin's coach, Carlos Rodríguez, who had been fighting her all afternoon. Henin is usually the sport's gold standard when it comes to focus, but on this March Wednesday at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Rodríguez had seen his game plan against No. 90--ranked Jill Craybas—"so simple that a little kid of five can follow," he would bark at Henin later—derailed by a jarring display of brainlock. Rodríguez had urged Henin to rely on topspin, pin Craybas to the back. Instead Henin went out and catered to Craybas with short, flat ground strokes, forgetting to mix up her flat serve with a slice and, after shredding one of her gorgeous backhands down the line, throwing in four unforced errors. Finally, with Henin serving at 3--2 in the first set, Rodríguez hissed, "Slice!" and something clicked. Henin sliced and started to roll.
Outside her own camp, of course, Henin's ride to a 6--2, 5--2, 40--15 lead over a 35-year-old ham-and-egger seemed to be just another romp for a seven-time Grand Slam champion who, after ending a 20-month retirement, had taken out three top 20 opponents en route to the 2010 Australian Open final. But Craybas wasn't Rodríguez's concern; he needed to get his longtime charge prepped for the later rounds of the Sony Ericsson and the summer to come. Henin is 27, for God's sake: Does she still need to hear his angry voice before snapping into gear?
"That's how Justine functions: She has to be bad to be good," Rodríguez says. Besides, the episode spoke to a deeper problem, which made Henin the other uneasy soul in the stadium that afternoon. There's a new fragility in her play, one that now transformed a sure smash into the spectacle of an alltime great, renowned for exquisite technique, grazing the ball with a humiliating tic! and completing a classic hacker's whiff.
Henin, you see, has no idea why she's playing. "She's trying to find the way," Rodríguez says, "because she doesn't know."
Everyone sees it. Since the moment last September that Henin announced her return to pro tennis, she has seemed ... different. Once proud of a cool demeanor that kept even friends at a remove, she now jokes about her risky turn on the 2009 Belgian reality show The 12 Labors of Justine Henin, in which she tried her hand at comedy, journalism and even singing a duet with an Italian balladeer. And she'll tell anyone who asks about her transformative weeks working for UNICEF in Congo and Cambodia.
"When you come from this tennis world, the hotels—I mean, look at this place," she said, taking in her plush lobby the day after closing out her win over Craybas 6--2, 6--2. "I arrived in Africa, and there was still the war there, and the reality hit me. One day I was coming back from a refugee camp and just crying in the car. There's not one day that I don't think about that."
Physically, Henin can still beat anyone. She has reached the final in three of the six tournaments she has played since her comeback, won at Stuttgart on May 2 and climbed back into the top 20. She's a strong favorite to win the French Open, which begins on May 23. Few can match the variety of her strokes, no one moves as well on clay, and so far she's shown even more audacity on the court than the onetime little dictator who became the first player ever to retire at No. 1.
"The new Justine is coming in much more," says commentator Mary Carillo. "She tried to win the Australian Open [final] pretty much from the net, attacking off Serena Williams's serves. She wants to serve bigger than she used to, wants to return bigger. She wants to show that there's nothing small about her."
It's no shock that Henin should come off as trying to prove a point: In her earlier career she played with a singular sense of mission. If she wasn't winning in honor of the mother she lost to cancer at age 12, the 5'5" Henin was showing that she could stand in with all the big, glamorous women stalking the locker room; engaging in a national psychodrama with her Belgian archrival, Kim Clijsters; icily showing her father and two brothers, with whom she severed relations for seven years, that she didn't need family—and, after all was forgiven, that she could celebrate their reunion with her best year on the court.