Henin Shows Up in Paris for Final Adieu

Yesterday I had my “you’ve-arrived-in-Paris” moment. During a twilight jog past the Musee du Louvre around the adjacent le jardin des Tuileries, I literally ran through a giant, curved Richard Serra sculpture. Sublime. The color of the 40-50-foot temporary metal piece is a murky brown-orange (some might call it a deep rust), which I noted is a darker version of the burnt orange of the terre battue that serves as constant backdrop – or foot drop – at Roland Garros. The French Open, at least in my mind, is here.

Friday on the Roland Garros grounds served up the requisite parade of top players doing pre-tournament interviews, among them Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But the big one was today for a player who isn't even entered - the recently retired Justine Henin, who showed up and met the press at her cherished clay-court haven for perhaps the last time. She was in town for her sponsor Adidas and apparently agreed to speak at the behest of the WTA Tour.

Clad in a white Adidas top and blue jeans, I was most struck by Henin's resolve. The former No. 1 seemed at ease, happy and there was nothing in her demeanor that suggested to me she had any doubts about her decision. Indeed, that is exactly the fortitude of mind the barely 5-6 Belgian mustered every time she walked on the court her entire career, and it’s what helped her squeeze seven Grand Slam titles (four French Opens, two U.S. Opens, one Australian Open) out of her tiny frame. She turns only 26 on June 1, and could come back, but I doubt it.

“It’s just time for something else now,” she said. "It's not easy, but it's really important to realize that, and just to think and to say, ‘Okay, there is another life after tennis, and I can build different things.’ I can be focused on different projects. Now I don't need the competition to be happy. I don't need this adrenaline being in front of thousands of people to really be happy. I just need to be myself. I'm a simple person. I can live very easily. I come back to what means a lot to me, and that's really important.”

Perhaps the closest comparison to a player who leaves the stage at or near the top is Bjorn Borg, the Swedish great who lost his will and left tennis at 26 in 1981. Borg told me recently that when you are that driven and can't locate your motivation, there is little point in continuing.

“If you lose your motivation is it very difficult to go in and be focused 100 percent,” the 11-time major winner said. “You have to do that if you want to be the best in the world. If you lose a little of your concentration and your motivation then it's very difficult to do the results and goals you set up every year.” That’s what happened to Borg. “I lost my motivation,” he said.

During her 20 minutes at the podium inside Phillipe Chartrier court, Henin deflected questions about her health, saying she is 100% fit. She said she had no regrets and had contemplated quitting for months. It was no knee-jerk decision. She explained her choice – one of the few top names to have done so – to remove herself immediately from the WTA Tour computer rankings rather than let her name slowly slide down.

“That's what I wanted,” she said, adding that her life now is “far from the courts. I didn't want to see myself in the ranking anymore.”

As one reporter noted, the timing was as startling as the decision itself, since Henin could certainly have played a couple more months to defend her favorite and most successful major or take one more stab at Wimbledon. But Henin never liked to lose, even less so when it was not on her terms (see her retirement in the ’06 Australian Open final to Amelie Mauresmo). As she said, “If I felt tennis wasn't anymore what I wanted to do, why should I be here as a player? There is no reason…I know what I did here in the past, and I don't need to live this again. I'm fine with my career. I'm really happy and proud of what I did, and I don't need to live these moments anymore.”

She reiterated her stance when asked about Wimbledon, the only major to elude her. “Wimbledon will remain, yeah, something that I never achieved,” she said. “But I think it wouldn't make me a happier person if I win it. It would have been a big achievement in my career. But me, Justine, as just a woman, I don't think that will make a big difference. I just want to be focused on the woman that is growing up now, and that is really much more important for myself."

Henin, who won 41 WTA titles and held the top ranking for 117 weeks, admitted that the lopsided losses to Sharapova at Australia and to Serena at Miami revealed that her competitive desire was gone..

“Well, those were the defeats that make me understand that I wasn't burning this fire anymore,” she said. “Against Serena in Miami, my first reaction was, ‘Okay, I want to give up now.’”

She also spoke about her close, enduring relationship with her long-time coach Carlos Rodriguez, who she will continue to work with at her academies in Florida and Belgium. She is also looking forward to throwing herself into her charitable foundation, which is focused on children.

Henin marveled that such a fine generation of players as herself and Kim Clijsters had come out of Belgium. She wasn’t optimistic such a bright field would emerge anytime soon. “Let's be pragmatic,” she said. “It's a small country. It's difficult to find players like us for two generations in a row.” 

However, the line that stuck out for me, however was this: “But now I'm just going to be the real Justine,” she said midway through the press conference. Who was the Justine we knew in the tennis world if not the real one? I suppose we shall discover in the years to come.

Meantime, here are a couple of stories that ran this week in USA Today on men’s frontrunner Nadal and the wide-open women’s field. Either later today or tomorrow, I’ll post my French Open picks and a few other thoughts on the leading contenders. 


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