Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Queen Is Dead

Justin Henin Abdicates Her Throne

Henin: From Sad To Glad?

I just finished reading the French Open preview issue of Tennis magazine, which basically handed a fourth consecutive (and fifth overall) Roland Garros title to World No. 1 Justine Henin. It was a good and logical prediction. Too bad that the very next day, I heard the shocking news that the battling Belgian had decided to heed her compatriot Kim Cliisters' example and announce her premature retirement from the women's tour. (The official announcement came May 14, 2008, just 11 days before the start of the French Open.) Cliisters was 23 when she decided to trade in the grind of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour for marriage and child-rearing; Justin is 25 and, according to the WTA, the first-ever woman to retire while No. 1. Her reasons weren't injury or physical burn-out or even her relatively poor start in tournament play this year, but all mental: she wanted to be happy.

I can understand. I mean, Justin Henin has had a troubled life (her mother died when Justine was 12, she was estranged from her family and didn't talk to her father for eight years, and divorced her husband last year) and never looked happy or relaxed on court. She truly was The Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Until she lightened up last year (when she put her marital difficulties behind her and made peace with her family), she had a rep on the women's tour as being an ice princess, though one prone to bouts of enigmatic other words, the French-speaking Belgian was like an existential character straight out of an Albert Camus novel. She looked alternately haunted, tormented, and pained, even at moments of ecstasy. As far as the public was concerned, she was a riddle to be solved.

Like soccer, tennis is a relentless, year-round sport that involves constant travel and endless tournaments that players must compete in to qualify for points and keep their rankings. John Lennon famously said that "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." Justin obviously could relate, saying that she was tired of missing out on family events and recreational interests (she said she'd like to ski for more than a weekend, for example) because of having to scurry off to a training session or catching a flight to yet another hotel room in yet another city in yet another country.

And here's another quote, this time from Merry Prankster/author Ken Kesey: "The desire for success insures failure." Henin's on-court success obviously didn't translate into success in her private life. There's a trade-off, and now, finally, Justine is willing to make it. Deal or No Deal? Her choice...No Deal! She's playing a new hand.

Now Justine can focus on her tennis school in Belgium, go to her nephew's next birthday party, and spend a whole winter holiday learning to ski. Like Bjorn Borg, she hangs it up while at the top of her game; hopefully she'll be more happy in her retirement than Borg was in his (it took him a while to figure out exactly what to do next, from being a Studio 54 playboy to trying a comeback to becoming a failed businessman).

I, for one, will miss her style of tennis. She had the most beautiful one-handed backhand in the game - male or female - and was an excellent volleyer who was as comfortable at net as on the baseline. Or, as the Los Angeles Times' Chuck Culpepper put it:
"So clean was this backhand's form, so effective its machinations, that it seemed to refute physics, the ball traveling with more zing than her musculature seemed capable of generating. Tennis analysts attempted sonnets. Violin accompaniment didn't seem far-fetched...She leaves behind a game of tall people pounding balls like clockwork from baselines, and her departure robs the sport of some of the strategic contrast for which it aches."

Most of all, I loved that this quirky little sprite (all of 5-5 and 126 pounds) could compete with the big-hitters like Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Lindsey Davenport and Ana Ivanovic. Truly, David and Goliath stuff - she was the Little Train that could. But now the stuff of legend and legacy. 41 career singles titles, 7 Grand Slams (4 French Opens, 2 Australian Opens, 1 Us Open), 2 doubles titles, and a women's singles gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. Now's she's ready to win accolades in her private life. Bonne chance!



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