Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

“I’ve sacrificed part of my youth, my adolescence, my family life,” says Justine Henin. It’s strange listening to the little Belgian tell the story of her family, because it’s so rare for us to get a sense of what goes on under that baseball cap.

Usually, in the circus that is tennis, people don’t notice Henin. She doesn’t have the blondness of Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport’s baby or the “oomph” of the Williams sisters. With that eternal ponytail, always dressed in sports gear, and no jewellery except her sponsor’s watch, she never seemed interested in presenting herself.

Outwardly, only one thing distinguishes Henin: she is the best. This has been her greatest year in tennis – “a year I will remember a long time”, she told me in Zurich last month. She enters next week’s season finale, the WTA Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid, as undisputed number one.
If only her mother could see her. But off-court, it has been even more of an annus mirabilis, and it’s a story she now needs to tell.

Henin began the year, on New Year’s day, by leaving her husband. She skipped the Australian Open and then heard that her brother David had been in a car crash and gone into a coma.
For the Henin family, this awoke terrible memories: before Justine was born, her parents watched another daughter, aged three, be killed by a drunk driver.

This time Henin rushed to her brother’s side. That took courage: she hadn’t spoken to her family in years. After her mother’s death, when she was 12, Henin had taken over as woman of the house but she later broke with her father and banned him from her matches.

It seems that leaving her family was necessary for her career. Is having a top-class athlete hard to deal with for any family? “It’s not easy to deal with for the entourage,” nods Henin. “Now my family is back with me and I know it’s for my whole life. I’ve refound my little girl smile.”

It’s a smile we’ve rarely seen. On court, if Henin wins a huge point, she might indulge herself with a quick “allez!” Though the court is her home, she rarely looked happy on it. “I’m an anxious person. I am still someone who interiorises. But I am completely in the emotions.”

She talks as if she has been reading a few psychology books. “No, but sometimes on the internet I look up quotations that inspire me. I think all the time. I want to understand what is happening, not to just undergo life.” Could she cite a quotation that has stuck with her? “Life is an audacious adventure or it is nothing.”

When I ask about her ambitions, instead of saying that she’d like to win Wimbledon, the one major title to elude her, she replies: “To have a maximum of emotions.” That, for Henin, is the point of sport, and she can cry when watching other sports on TV. “I was watching the rugby match the other day, England against France, and it gives a lot of emotions. People write to me and say, ‘We cried when you won,’ and it gives
a meaning to what I do.”

When has she felt such emotions on court? “This year, Roland Garros [the French Open], being able to have the victory in front of my family.” Her three siblings (including the recovered David) were in Paris to see her triumph but her father, unable to handle the emotion, watched in a café at home. After Henin won, apparently half the café cried.

The victory was also a triumph for Carlos Rodriguez, her coach since she was 14. “At the moment of victory, being able to look Carlos deep in the eye and say ‘merci’ to him. It’s a very rich moment. I couldn’t live this with someone else. They too are my family: Carlos, his wife, his children. I have very close friends who are my family too.” In fact, she adds: “It’s like I’m part of every family in Belgium. They’ve known me since I was 12. When they find me, it’s like they’ve known me forever.” As the country’s footballers, cyclists and royals fade, Henin is almost the last remaining object of Belgian nationalist passions.

What are her own emotions about being ranked number one? “It’s a slightly bizarre feeling. I’m a competitor not in relation to others, but in relation to myself. I don’t run after tennis history. For me it’s not just competition. I like games with a ball. I’m not big but I can do lots of things with a ball. I like playing on a Sunday morning with old friends, who are not bad, who play once or twice
a week.”

Her mum would be proud. When Henin first won Roland Garros, the tournament her mother had taken her to watch as a child, she addressed her deceased parent from court. Is her mother still watching her today? “I hope so with all my heart. I appreciate what she gave me. It wasn’t long enough. We talk about it with the family. It’s sweet, because we describe our memories.” The family’s reconciliation, Henin adds, would have delighted her mother. “She was afraid when leaving that things would explode, which is what happened.”


More Simon Kuper

Get alerts on Life & Arts 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