Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Retired, not retiring


Searching for answers on heels of Henin's stunning retirement
Source : Inside Tennis on Sports Illustrated
Story Highlights
* Henin's play thus far in 2008 foreshadowed her announcement
* Hard to determine how much personal drama impacted decision
* Serena, Sharapova among favorites to win French Open

In the wake of the news that Justine Henin is retiring, caught up with tennis writer Jon Wertheim to get his reaction.

Q: What do you make of today's announcement?

JW: It is, at once, stunning and not all that surprising. Any time the top-ranked player -- who's 25 years old and the three-time defending champion of the next Grand Slam -- abruptly retires, it's obviously a bombshell announcement. At the same time, Henin has really struggled this year. She's shown very little resemblance to the player who dominated the second half of 2007. She's never been motivated by the trappings of celebrity. I think in her mind, if she's not winning or playing to her expectations, there's little incentive to continue on.

Q: What's happened to her this year?

JW: You know, something just seems to have gone out of her. For as much as people rave, rightfully so, about her one-handed slingshot backhand or her well-rounded game, I always thought her biggest asset was her guts. She was just such a courageous player. Yet this year, she wasn't just losing but she was playing with a noticeable absence of fire and confidence. Most recently I saw her get blown off the court by Serena Williams in Key Biscayne. The score was 6-2, 6-0 and it wasn't that close. In the postmatch interview, Henin owned up to a lack of courage. I thought this was a stunning admission from her. Particularly given the opponent.

Q: Is it mental or physical?

JW: I think in sports today, it's increasingly hard to divorce the two. Tennis can be an excruciating sport mentally; all the more so when you're rehabbing injuries or favoring certain muscles or worrying about rationing your energy. It's easy to see how a player such as Henin, who has been curtailing her schedule for years now and has battled all manner of injury and ailment, just a reached a point where enough was enough.

Q: This is a player who had a childhood filled with tragedy, who missed last year Australian's Open because of her divorce, who recently reunited with her family. How much do you sense the personal drama has impacted this decision?

JW: Her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, said repeatedly last year that he had never seen his protégé so content and so happy, and it translated to her success on the court. So who knows? I think there's a temptation to play pop psychologist and say that either her personal drama exacted an inevitable price on her game. Or else, the perspective she's picked up having to endure so much personal hardship has diminished the importance of tennis. But honestly, who knows?

Q: What does the WTA Tour do about this?

JW: Well, this has been a rough stretch for the women's game. Kim Clijsters, a recent No.1 player, retired roughly a year ago. Barely six months ago, Martina Hingis retired. After years of inactivity, Monica Seles officially retired in February. But this is different. Here, we're talking about the No.1 player in the world who, notionally anyway, should be in the prime of her career. The good thing about tennis -- sports in general, I suppose -- is that there's always another athlete ready to fill a void. But, yes, this is a real loss for the WTA.

Q: Will we see her again?

JW: Tennis is starting to rival boxing in terms of comebacks. It's the rare player who stays "retired" these days. When Lindsay Davenport can retire, have a child and then return, it speaks volumes about: a) just how addictive competition can be and b) how possible it is for the top players to return to prominence in a short period of time. Again, Henin is an interesting case because she's always had such unique motivations and rhythms. But it's very easy to envision her taking even a year or two off, returning at age 26 or 27, and resuming her success.

Q: With Henin out of the picture, who do you see winning the French Open in a couple of weeks?

JW: That's one of the ironies. Even given her dismal year, Henin would have likely been the favorite. It's hard to bet against a three-time defending champ. As it stands, the field is wide open. Serena and Maria Sharapova are both obviously strong picks but neither is at her best on clay. Dinara Safina won in Germany last weekend -- beating both Henin and Serena -- but she has a modest track record at Majors. Last year's losing finalist, Ana Ivanovic, is a credible pick and so is Jelena Jankovic. But, really, this field is up for grabs now.

Bon chance Justine, et felicitations.
I like this story 'cos I am retired too.

Two days later, in her own words
16/05/2008: This past Wednesday May 14 at 16:00 hrs Justine held a press conference at her tennis club (Club Justine N1). In a packed room Justine took the microphone and bared her heart - serene, happy with conviction.

It's a great day in my life, I believe that you can call it that. I'm here today to announce to you that I am putting a definitive end to my tennis career. I know that it is a shock for many people and a surprise, but for me it's decision I've thought about for sometime now. It is not a decision which I made because of a simple defeat in Berlin. I've thought about it in my head for sometime, for a few months already, since the latter month of 2007. It's an end to a beautiful adventure.

Perhaps, people will think that I am still young, but there are no rules. I invested enormously in my sport, since the age of five. I always lived for tennis, and it's without regret because I lived emotions which I will never forget. Images engraved in my heart and my memory, and I am sure it's in the heart and the memory of many of you too. Today a page has turned.

I don't feel sadness, but rather a delivery, a relief, a glance towards the future. I always seek to build and change, and not only by tennis. I believe that tennis gave me many beautiful things, but I want to do it by returning to the essentials. I based my life on the relationships, the love and all that I could give to tennis. But I couldn't manage to express it anymore these past months. I thought about it alot. I made this decision by myself in my little corner, with the support of my family, off course. But I wanted to make the decision for me. I am very, very proud. You need courage to arrive at this conclusion.

I felt that six months or even one year later I would have a harsh bitter taste if I continued, and that things won't get better than what happened these last few months. But today, I can speak about my sport, all that I lived with a smile, very beautiful things happened and they are in my heart. I have a desire to create new things. The future for me is to live with my decision, and to realize my new goals. To assume it and breathe again.

There are no bad things ahead for me. I feel that I have the qualities and capacities, to communicate and raise many new projects. I'm sure I will see things much more clearly when the time comes. The first is my Foundation. It's really very important for me to be able to continue to help these children, to live precious moments with them. To continue to give them a chance to dream. We're here at my home. Right in my tennis academy. This is something which I will continue to support, off course with Carlos. He'll be stronger and valuable here. I have confidence in other future projects. There are peak performance workshops and seminars with Carlos and Nexum/Nexp in the area of human resources.

Off course, there are gratitudes to give. The first of which is to Carlos - I say thank. You are once more at my side. It's 12 years together that we lived , and you held me up. 12 years to believe in me. You never abandoned me. He was always very discrete and standing in the shadows when I won because he didn't want to intrude on my family and friends. But at other times, the difficult moments he made his presence known. He always respected me, and I must say since last week Thursday he still impresses me. The calm and patience he gave me. The incredible amount of support. I know he will always be strong and at my side. I am really very proud of this because tennis is a solo sport. It is undoubtedly my most exquisite thing of pride - the human adventure that I lived with him. And I believe that if Carlos had said to me one day, "Ju for family reasons or some other reason. Please don't feel obligated. You can let me go". It was obvious to me that we would still continue as a team even if my tennis career stopped. We're powerful together, and this is why it worked so well.

Our relationship was much bigger than coach and a player. We passed all the tests, but from now on it will be different, it will be more beautiful. I'm grateful to his family - his wife and children who will get more of their father. And the thought of this makes me smile today. It's also a relief to know there won't be these difficult moments, these separations. They really have a big place in my heart.

I would like to, off course, thank my family - my parents, Dad, Mom, because I'm here today only because of you. Everything is fine thanks to you. My brothers and sister too. I have to admit that my role as older sister makes me very happy. There are great things which await us. My friends here today. It was great spending time with you and I'm sure there's more ahead for us, bigger things, more honest and stronger. My Godmother is here. Gene, thank you for your role in my life it was very important. My staff obviously. You can only build something large with a faithful team. And they were always available and believed in me. Thank you for being there. It wasn't an individual sport, but a team sport.

Thank You to all my sponsors, the current ones and those from the very beginning because without people who believe - you cannot get there. Thank You to the AFT, the WTA, the COIB and all the people who counted on me.

Thank You to all my fans. I'm happy to have had the opportunity to give them excitement. I hope I brought a little sunshine in their lives. We spent such great moments together. I hope that everyone can understand and that everyone will support me in the beginning of this new life...

Thank you very much


t said...

Another cool response:
Net loss: Henin picks living life over tennis

Life happens. Sooner or later, that crackling backhand winner is not as thrilling, measured against the exhilaration of impending adulthood.

"It is my life as a woman that starts now," Justine Henin said Wednesday upon stepping down from her perch atop women's tennis at age 25, and worn out.

Could it be that the burden of being 5 feet 5 3/4 inches and 125 pounds in the era of what Mary Carillo calls "big-babe tennis" was finally too much?

Or could Henin, slumping and already with "more money than I can use in three lifetimes," merely be having a middle-age career crisis, from which she will return after time off?

"I have a feeling she means it," Carillo, the incisive insider and broadcaster, said in a telephone interview. "Justine always was an admirer of Steffi Graf, and when Steffi felt she'd had enough, that was it, she was gone, even though she was still near the top."

Last year, when Henin won the French and U.S. opens and was No. 1 for all but seven weeks, she found time to divorce her husband, Pierre-Yves Hardenne, and to reconcile with her father and siblings after being estranged for nearly a decade.

She stepped outside the protective cocoon and allowed herself to breathe and feel. It's entirely possible she liked feeling free.

"Are you telling me she made the dreaded mistake of trying to be happy, to have balance in her life?" Carillo said, in recognition of the blinders it takes to compete at the rarefied levels of this sport, out of a suitcase, from one continent to another, with only a few weeks' break.

Women's golf champion Annika Sorenstam announced her retirement Tuesday at the comparatively ancient age of 37. In tennis, the highway to 30 is littered with the remains of careers that crashed and burned around Henin's age, at least since the mushrooming prize and endorsement money allowed them to settle in on easy street.

On the men's side, even old-timers such as Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Mats Wilander and Boris Becker did the majority of their winning before their 25th birthdays. These are unique individuals, with different personalities and motivations, but what rich twentysomething wouldn't want a little variety to spice up a life that has been bounded by white lines from the time the racket was as long as his or her torso?

At the risk of sounding heretical, even Roger Federer, 26, might not be immune to tennis ennui.

Last summer, he seemed to be embracing his inner Vincent Chase, was wined and dined by the likes of Anna Wintour and then went off to pal around Asia with Pete Sampras.

In stepping out of his skin, has Federer taken an eye off the prize? His results this year are cause for concern.

Maybe an alternative path to 30 is to let life intrude incrementally instead of all at once.

For years, the tennis establishment complained as Venus and Serena Williams defiantly dabbled in side ventures that were not going to help them in the historical pursuit of Graf and the other women's legends. Yet here they are, still out there, no longer dominant but winning an occasional major, while Henin, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and other grinders have picked up and gone.

"Maybe Venus and Serena will be in the game longer because they took a break here and there," said Larry Scott, the chief executive of the Women's Tennis Association. "I'll also say it takes a remarkable athlete to turn it off and on the way they have."

The inference was that Henin, undersized as she was, couldn't risk losing her edge.

With versatility, grit and a textbook backhand, she won seven Grand Slam titles and was the tour's best player in recent years, but always with a vulnerability well hidden under her ubiquitous baseball cap.

As her longtime coach, Carlos Rodriguez, once told me after Henin failed to beat an unranked opponent at a U.S. Open: "We try to remind her that she is No. 1 because she forgets who she is."

Henin was not, by design, a tour runway model, no Williams sister or Maria Sharapova on the marketing side. For that reason, Scott stepped off a plane Wednesday from Rome to say, of Henin's stunning exit as it relates to the sport at large, "We won't lose any sleep over it."

Cold as that sounded, Scott was quick to add that Henin was a joy to behold for the true tennis fan everywhere from the day she appeared until she telephoned Scott on Tuesday to tell him she was out.

He wasn't shocked after she had confided to him late last year that "she didn't realize until she put the racket down and went on holiday just how much the year had affected and changed her as a person."

Playing the French Open, which Henin won four times, didn't matter anymore.

Winning Wimbledon, the last Grand Slam title to elude her, was not worth carrying on for a couple of more months.

Effective immediately, life becomes priority No. 1.

Harvey Araton writes for The New York Times.

t said...

Marion Bartoli meanwhile seems to be in a right state. Since Wimbledon where she made the final last year, she has been on a slippery slope results-wise. In an interview after her loss to Casey Dellacqua yesterday, she said that she’s felt lousy for the past five months, has no energy, even if she isn’t playing she can’t just relax or go out for a walk since she’s too stressed out. Poor girl. Does she need a break from tennis? (Some unkind souls might say that with the way her results have been going, she’s been taking a break from tennis all year…)

This is just how I felt for years, from 2002/2003-July 2006. Things are different now, thank God.