Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Oh by the way....Henin Retired

While I was watching and not writing, Justine Henin abruptly retired, just one week after waxing poetic about how much she was looking forward to the French Open. This one was a shocker, but somehow also not. Justine was always the type of player you couldn’t read, she was famously closed off from the world ever since falling out with her family after her mother died from cancer when Justine was a girl. Justine, the oldest, left to train with Carlos Rodriguez and didn’t talk to her four siblings or her father for a decade. In recent years Rodriguez’s hold on Justine became more and more svengali-like, even driving a wedge between Justine and her ex-husband. In the aftermath of that divorce from her husband, Justine and her family reconciled, about a year ago this spring. For much of the rest of the year Justine reasserted her dominance.

The Rationale

Why am I mentioning this now? It’s the reason she quit. She simply (she says) decided she wanted to spend time with them every day and not on the tennis tour. She said she wanted to be there when her siblings came and went to school. Hmmm… My first thought was “why not take a break?” She could easily have skipped the rest of the year and then reevaluated. True, McEnroe was never the same player when he did it, but other players returned after long hiatuses to claim grand slam titles (Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles). It’s hard for me believe that a player as young and accomplished as Henin won’t simply wake up two years from now bored out of her mind from waiting around for her siblings to come home from school.

“I Could Beat That Girl Like a Drum”

Plus there is the “I could beat that girl with my eyes closed” factor. This is the x-factor that drives athletes who quit too soon to come back. It even tortures those who quit at the right time. The reason Pete Sampras goes crazy during Wimbledon is because he sees these baseliners rallying eight feet behind the baseline on grass and thinks “that guy? I could beat him like a drum.” But he quit at the right time, so he will never comeback.

A Break from the Selfish

Many players, from Pete Sampras to Andre Agassi to Chris Evert, say that to be a great champion you have to be selfish. And when they finally jump off the train that is the pro tennis tour it’s because the price on their family has become too much. Everyone’s schedule depends on the player. You want to see your friends or parents? They have to come to you since you’re never home. You don’t play with your kids because you have to rest your back. You can’t go to the Eiffel Tower with your spouse because you have to save your energy. What’s more, athletes that truly devote their full powers to the game demand a lot from themselves. I thought it was shocking when Pete Sampras said he was so happy when he retired to just be able to drink a beer and not worry about it. He couldn’t drink a beer?? Well, people who are in truly peak physical condition live that kind of lifestyle.

Competitive Voids All Around

It’s hard for athletes to replace competition in their lives, even if they played past their prime. So we have people like Michael Jordan making a comeback, buying into two basketball franchises (and mostly failing). Even Sampras has opened up about the difficulty of transition between tennis and not tennis. When he retired he was spent, but he’s also said after the first year or so it felt abnormal to be retired at 32. The main reason he came back to play the senior tour was because, in his words “a man has to work. I don’t want my kids to think retiring at 32 is normal.”

Justine was more committed to tennis than any current women’s player (by a country mile). That’s why she was a dominant number 1. So it is perfectly natural for a woman who lived in an intense tennis-only training vaccum since she was 8 years old to want and need a break from endless travel, endless training, endless focus. But if I were to bet on whether Justine would make a comeback, I’d vote yes.

Her retirement leaves the WTA Tour with voids all around. With the demise of Henin they lose the one and only top woman who made tennis her priority. Later on in the week, if time permits, I’ll go into what a disaster this is for women’s tennis, if and how they can rebound and why I still believe pouring your all into the game is the way to go, even if it results in a few early retirements.

For now though, I would like to reflect on Justine’s game.

A Player’s Player

In some sense, Henin was a player’s player. In reading her tennis-obituaries this week I was struck by a quote from one of her first appearances in the US Open, when she beat Anna Kournikova. Henin was 18 at the time, and she said this:
I think I am here to play tennis, is the best important in my life. I think [Anna is] a really nice girl. She likes her look, and everybody likes her look. But I am not here to do cinema. I am here to play tennis and I think that's the best important.
As SI’s Jon Wertheim pointed out, in this she was true to herself until the end. Justine didn’t really care what you thought of her, didn’t care if in her rivalry with Clijsters she was referred to as The Mean One, didn’t care if her rivals were busy making cameo appearances on sitcoms or posing for Playboy. She already knew what some players, like Andre Agassi, take forever to discover: it’s ok to be just a tennis player. It gave you everything you have. Some players never learn.

Her game was wonderful to watch. People are saying she’s the last 5’5 champion. Probably, but then again I wouldn’t be too sure to rule out another shorty. Although her peers all played versions of Big Babe Tennis (term coined by Mary Carillo, not by me), Henin could hit the ball with great power. But she had variety and was teriffically accurate, and that set her apart from the others.

Mentally she was also steely tough. At least until a few years ago when all sorts of weird and unsportsmanlike conduct started creeping into her matches, much like the other women of her generation. Wertheim wrote that Henin looked steely one minute but looking to her coach in the stands the next, at once mentally tough and weak. I think he’s right but that’s overstating it. She was the only player on the women’s side who was steely and mentally tough. Looking to the coach was, in my opinin, more her way of letting off steam than anything else.

I’ll miss someone whose sense of professionalism – while not up to the standard we used to see in women’s tennis – was at least strong enough to get her to make tennis her priority. But above all, I’ll miss that searing one-handed backhand that was one of the best the women’s game has ever seen.

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