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Steve Flink: Henin's Inexpilicable Departure

5/5/2008 8:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

And so Justine Henin has told us the astounding truth that she is retiring less than three weeks before she turns 26, leaving a sport she played with immense passion, grit, and professionalism, going out on top as the No. 1 ranked woman in the world. Henin leaves behind a prodigious record of seven Grand Slam singles championships, having finished three years at the top of the rankings, having won two Season-Ending Championships, having captured 41 singles titles altogether across a professional career that began in 1999. She has celebrated a career of the highest order, pushing herself to the hilt, exploiting all of her resources, spunk, and match playing acumen to claim the game's greatest honors. If she wants to end her career now, she is fully entitled to do so. No one can begrudge Henin that right.

But I find myself baffled and deeply saddened by her decision. To be sure, she has battled injuries and viruses for years, and undoubtedly that took its toll. As a woman who stood just shy of 5'6", she was one of the most diminutive competitors in the upper levels of her sport, surrounded by more physically imposing players like the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova. Year after year, Henin put herself on the line against bigger adversaries, and brought them down with savvy play, excellent court sense, unrelenting competitive drive. She displayed quiet yet unmistakable ferocity. She had an incredible heart.

And yet, suddenly and inexplicably, she has revealed to the world that the tank is empty, that her once powerful desire to excel is gone. As she said at her press conference, "I always based everything on this motivation--- this flame--- that was in me. And once I lost that, I lost many, many things." Only Henin can know when and why that happened. Only she could recognize the symptoms. It may well be that the pattern of emptiness was irreversible, and perhaps she had tried in vain to rekindle her old spark.

All I know is that Henin had just played the best tennis of her life in 2007. She won 10 of 14 tournaments she played, winning her fourth French Open and third championship in a row at Roland Garros, capturing her second U.S. Open crown, holding back Sharapova in an epic final round clash at the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid. On a technical level, Henin had never played a richer or more diversified brand of tennis. To be sure, she had gone through a gradual process to expand her game over the years, turning her inside-out forehand into an increasingly potent weapon, tinkering with her serve to make it more effective, and demonstrating that she could play the conventional punch volley as well, if not better, than any woman in the world.

All of the pieces of her more adventuresome game sparkled in 2007. She knew that she had to pace herself to heal injuries and stay strong mentally and physically, and that was why she played only 14 events last year. But the abbreviated schedule seemed to be designed to extend her career, to keep her fresh for the years ahead. She had a difficult start to 2008, and looked decidedly unhappy in losing to a sublime Sharapova 6-4,6-0 in the Australian Open semifinals.

Be that as it may, despite getting crushed 6-2, 6-0 by Serena Williams in Miami, I still had the feeling Henin was priming herself for the Grand Slam events as always. She went to Berlin last week to prepare for Roland Garros, won one match, and then was taken apart 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 by Dinara Safina. Henin says that leading up to that match, she realized troublesome signs were apparent. "Everything became harder," she says. "I felt deep inside, something was getting out of my grasp." As she approached the end of her contest with Safina, Henin sensed the time had probably come to walk away from the game.

She claims she is departing without doubting that she is doing the right thing. She says, "I had reached my limits, and I feel strong and relieved that I could take the decision. There are plenty of things that I can do. There are no regrets. I did everything I had to do in tennis."

Does she really believe that is the case? I have my doubts. Let's consider the arc of her career. In 2001, she reached her first major final, falling in three sets to Venus Williams on the lawns of Wimbledon. That was the year she broke into the top ten in the world. In 2002, after a solid campaign, she finished the season at No. 5. And then she acquired the winning habit at the big events. In 2003, she took the French and U.S. Opens and finished the year at No. 1 in the world. Her semifinal triumph over Jennifer Capriati at the U.S. Open under the lights was a stupendous effort. Eleven times, Capriati stood within two points of victory, but Henin would not surrender. She somehow prevailed 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), and then managed to oust Kim Clijsters in an all-Belgian straight set final the next night.

Henin won the Australian Open over Clijsters at the start of 2004. She followed with triumphs at Roland Garros in 2005 and 2006, and then came through at the French and U.S. Opens a year ago. But the fact remains that the most prestigious title always eluded Henin. At Wimbledon, she not only lost the championship match to Venus Williams in 2001, but in 2006, now much more comfortable and adaptable on that surface, she thoroughly outplayed Amelie Mauresmo in the first set of the final at the All England Club. Eventually, a physically sagging Henin fell 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 against the Frenchwoman.

Henin collected four French Open titles, two U.S. Opens, and one Australian in her time as a champion, but never won Wimbledon. Surely, no matter what she is saying now, she must regret not breaking through on the lawns at the shrine of the sport. Moreover, she would conceivably have wanted to raise her total of majors into the double digits, something I was convinced she was destined to do if she had played another three years.

f Henin had said in her retirement announcement that she could no longer deal with the constant pain from her injuries, I would have better understood why she is walking away from the game. If she had explained that her health would no longer permit her to play at the required level, or said that she had recently seen doctors who urged her to stop competing at the highest levels of the game, Henin's exit would have made more sense to me.

But, despite speaking from the heart and shedding some light on her reasons for quitting the game, Henin's retirement remains somewhat mysterious. Contrary to what she says, there was conceivably more work to be done, more dreams to be chased, more championships to be won. And she surely cares deeply about her place in history. As I examine the greatest female players of all time, I believe Henin does not quite make the cut for the top ten. My top ten would be as follows: 1. Steffi Graf; 2. Martina Navratilova; 3. Chris Evert; 4. Helen Wills Moody; 5. Margaret Court; 6. Suzanne Lenglen; 7. Maureen Connolly; 8. Billie Jean King; 9. Monica Seles; 10. Serena Williams. But my top ten for the "Open Era" would indeed include Henin: 1. Graf; 2. Navratilova; 3. Evert; 4. Court; 5. King; 6. Seles; 7. Serena Williams; 8. Henin; 9.Venus Williams; 10. Martina Hingis.

Had Henin kept recording major triumphs, if she had stuck assiduously to her craft for a few more years, then she would have claimed an even more illustrious place in the game's historical chambers. But she has made her choice, and I am sorry about it. She will be missed because she was such an honorable representative of the game, such a genuinely dedicated performer, such a no-nonsense individual who valued craftsmanship over showmanship at every juncture of her career. And yet, some fans will probably never forgive her for two incidents.

The first was when she faced Serena Williams in the 2003 French Open semifinals. Serena was ahead 4-2, 30-0 in the final set. Justine held up her hand to say she was not ready to receive serve, but the umpire did not see her. Serena missed that first serve, and, after a brief delay, had to hit a second serve. She lost that point, lost that game, lost the match. Henin was terribly maligned for that moment, for not walking up to the umpire to tell him she had put up her hand and distracted Serena. But the whole thing was blown way out of proportion.

The second incident was when Henin, playing with an upset stomach, retired at 6-1, 2-0 down against Amelie Mauresmo in the 2006 Australian Open final. The media blasted her for diminishing Mauresmo's first triumph at a Grand Slam event. She was chastised for not staying out on the court and completing the match.

I believe those two moments do not accurately reflect the essential Henin, who was an exemplary champion, a woman who competed with integrity, a person of character and conviction who turned herself into an authentically great player. I wish she could have played on just a little bit longer.

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