Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

You would never guess she was a champion — just 5’5” tall, her face hidden under a baseball cap, bow-legged, her right thigh taped. Her injured back can make sitting in a restaurant a torment, she occasionally exclaims in pain between shots, and she is recovering from a debilitating virus, but Justine Henin-Hardenne has stormed into today’s final of the French Open against Mary Pierce.

“My game is probably better than it has never been,” she says, employing a Frenchism. The plucky little Belgian is the world’s most extraordinary female tennis player. Long may it last; the fear is it won’t.

When Henin first visited Roland Garros as a nine-year-old with her mother, she reputedly predicted: “One day you’ll be watching me play on centre court.” Three years later her mother was dead of cancer. Aged 12 Henin became the woman of the house, looking after her father and siblings. Later she would break with her father, with whom she still doesn’t speak.

She threw herself into tennis. “When I was little,” she recalled here in Paris this week, “I wanted to become a professional tennis player. It then seemed completely impossible. I’m not so tall. I was not so strong. I couldn’t close the big matches. In my life, too, I’ve had very difficult moments. I continued to fight.”

What makes listening to Henin almost as pleasurable as watching her play is her self-knowledge. Her only rival in this regard is Andre Agassi. Henin’s was won through suffering: she was a serious girl, often too serious. “Since she was very small, she has worried about perfection,” Jacques Leriche, sporting director of Belgium’s Francophone Tennis Association, says. When young she would choke at big points. At 20, she was expected to spend her career as a speck beneath the Williams sisters’ shoes.

Then, in early 2003, Henin asked herself whether she was happy sailing along at about fifth in the world. She realised she would have regrets if she didn’t do everything to become number one. She began working harder, grew steelier on big points and, that spring, won her first Grand Slam, in Paris, cheered on by stands full of Belgians. In her speech on court afterwards, she addressed “my mother, who looks after me from paradise: I hope you’re very proud of me, mama.” In the next few months Henin won the US and Australian opens.

She then acquired something called cytomegalovirus. It made her so weak she could barely go out to dinner and brought her to the brink of depression. During a brief comeback last summer she won Olympic gold, before disappearing again.

Strangely, her travails coincided with those of Kim Clijsters, her Belgian “twin”, who at one point grew so gloomy about her prospects of ever shaking off injury that she considered opening a campsite. Both returned to tennis this spring, Henin as a different person. Never again could she rely unthinkingly on her body. She resolved to play for no more than three weeks running, to stop overworking herself and, above all, to enjoy tennis more.

“That’s the biggest difference from what I lived in 2003: every shot I hit, it’s just great pleasure.”

It works: since returning in March, Henin has gone through the clay season undefeated and enters today’s final with 23 straight victories. “I’m a little surprised,“ she admits.

At times she plays beautiful tennis of infinite variety. John McEnroe called her one-handed backhand the prettiest shot in tennis, but Henin says that her forehand “is my greatest weapon”. She can leap over the ball to crash a diagonal winner , but from the same position she can chip a dropshot inches over the net to die on the line, as she did twice within minutes while thumping Maria Sharapova.

Her serve, at nearly 200 kilometres an hour, would pass in the men’s game. “She is one of the fastest movers on tour,” adds Nadia Petrova, who after being humiliated by Henin in the semi-final devoted her entire press conference to an appreciation of the various facets of the Belgian’s game.

Henin still gets nervous. Roland Garros remains a site of pilgrimage for her. On the morning of her first match here last week, she woke up early, scared and during a shaky victory exchanged insults with her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, sitting in the stands. Three of her first four matches went to three sets. Against Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth round, she faced two match points. Yet that showed Henin’s other newfound quality: she now wins the big points. Henin says that when, on those match points, she saw fear
in Kuznetsova’s eyes, she knew she would win.

Henin herself is careful to stay poker-faced during a match. At most she allows herself a quick “Allez!” after a big point, before turning straight to a ballboy for another ball. Tennis, says Henin, is about those big points.

“It’s not about luck. It’s about being strong at the moment. Usually I play the right shot on the very important points.”

For once, she cannot explain how. The Belgian crowds don’t care. During Roland Garros, Flemings and Walloons for once disappear and a Belgian nation comes into existence, clad in horned “Red Devil” caps, with Paris as its capital. Now that the country sucks at football and cycling, and barely exists as a political entity, Henin is the chief outlet for Belgian nationalism.

Provided it lasts, as Napoleon’s mother said. After today Henin plans to rest, not playing again until Wimbledon. Yet that little body was not meant to produce such big shots for very long. The ceaseless tennis tour is structured to eat its champions, the women faring even worse than the men. Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams have shone and gone, and now Henin is in danger.

Get alerts on News when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article