Justine Time: Remembering the Great Henin

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The petite Belgian Justine Henin was nominated today along with Marat Safin and Helena Sukova for induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Here’s our appreciation of the stylish and fierce competitor, which we wrote when she retired in June 2008. 

By Bill Simons

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.

Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion.

Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare.

Impossible is potential.

Impossible is temporary.

It was a stunning victory in ‘04. Little Justine Henin-Hardenne brought down mighty Lindsay Davenport in the Pacific Life Open final, all of which prompted me to ask her about her famous grit.

“Does it help that you have such a fighting spirit?” I wondered.

“Oh, it does,” Justine responded. “I’m a better fighter than in the past. I know that for me impossible is nothing.”

Little did we know that this seemingly modest “impossible is nothing” comment would soon resonate around the world. In fact, adidas called on super athletes Ali, Beckham, Ronaldo and Tim Duncan and juxtaposed them with their slightly defiant slogan to launch a worldwide campaign. On TV or the net, in Paris subways, on huge Asian billboards, with soccer icons or the gods of track and field, “Impossible Is Nothing” became the company’s answer to Nike’s “Just Do It” mantra.

Appropriately enough, few athletes embodied the “Impossible Is Nothing” ethos more than Henin. Tennis famously showcases performers with an extraordinary mix of guts and (“I will not be denied”) ferocity. One thinks of Connors, McEnroe, Billie Jean, Seles and Steffi. But right there with the spunkiest of them is the Little Lady of Leige, whose career was nothing if not a splendid, far too brief, passion play.

Tightly wound, perpetually elusive, glitz-free and more than driven, time and again the severe dynamo, armed with her bilingual, “Allez – C’mon” call to action, bounced back from heart-wrenching personal loss, testy on-court episodes and inexplicable maladies to bring the giants of the game to their knees. Serena, Sharapova, Lindsay, Venus and Capriati might bristle, but truth be told, the sling-shotting Justine brought fear to the eyes of the Goliaths of this game.

Now, once again, the Belgian has shaken tennis. On the eve of the French Open, where she hasn’t lost since ‘04, Henin announced that, at the age of 25, she would become the first player to ever retire at No. 1.

In a relentlessly stressful sport, where bombshell retirements are the norm, we were handed the most stunning I’m-out-of-Dodge pink slip since Borg exited in ‘82 at age 26. Now women’s tennis – which of late has lost Seles, Capriati, Clijsters and Hingis – will be without the 5-foot-5, 126-pound mighty-might who was certainly one of the best pound-for-pound players in history.

A dazzling dynamo, Henin brought to court the most beautiful signature shot in women’s tennis — an explosive (“where does she get such coil?”) one-handed twist-’n-blast backhand, which she could roll over, slice low or hit flat with a gun-slinging confidence that rarely wavered – even at crunch time.

A fitness fanatic, who loved marathon matches and chess-master tactical battles, Henin was maddeningly consistent and a bold basher who could out-scramble, out-slide and out-think all the bigger girls on the playground.

Beyond this, it was her ferocious drive that fueled her to seven Grand Slams wins, a 117-week reign as No. 1, and almost 20 million dollars in prize money. But now her seemingly deep well appears empty.  All those years of battle took their toll.

From the beginning, more than any tennis champ that comes to mind, emotion was her drug. As a 10-year-old tomboy, her mother took her on a soak-it-all-in pilgrimage to Roland Garros, where the wide-eyed kid famously proclaimed, “One day I will play here, and I will win.”

Then, just two years later, her beloved mom died of cancer. Soon there was a painful estrangement from her dad and siblings, who, according to JH, “refused to understand my ambitions and determination to become a top player. They did not understand the time and dedication it takes and they hurt me very much.”

Henin quickly bonded with Carlos Rodriguez, who would become her details-matter coach and refuge; her surrogate father and wise life-guide. In an “ova’s rule” era of Big Babe Tennis, the Argentine crafted Justine into a hard-hitting, against-the-grain winner who combined quick-step footwork, astounding versatility on all surfaces and an uncanny ability to transition from defense to offense. He not only got Justine to ratchet up her serves, jump into her returns and charge the net, but through countless trials and trauma he was her emotional rock. For 12 years, he was by her side for her sweetest moments, like when she won her beloved Roland Garros for the first time in ‘03 and confided, “My mom gave me all the energy I needed to win this match. When I woke up this morning, I said, ‘You have to win. You have to do it for your mom.’”

So, too, when Henin was tossed asunder by pounding storm waves, Carlos calmed the waters. When she was sidelined for almost all of ‘04 with a career-threatening virus, he was by her side. When she battled fellow Belgians who Justine said were mere “co-workers, but it stops there,” he was her loyal backer. At the ‘03 French Open, she was ridiculed for an outbreak of nasty, win-at-all-costs gamesmanship against Serena, which prompted S.L. Price to write that Justine “went from being tennis’ Heartbreak Kid to Machiavelli in a skirt.” No big deal, Rodriquez remained as true as Tonto. And then there was his steed’s most infamous moment. Deep into the ‘06 Aussie Open final, Henin was being thumped by Amelie Mauresmo when she claimed injury and forfeited the match, thereby denying the Frenchwoman the sweetness and glory of an unfiltered victory. It all seemed like a graceless, “no mas” implosion and prompted Pam Shriver to note that Justine “has been one of the great warriors. [But] my respect level [for her] has disintegrated…Henin’s reputation is tarnished forever.”

Despite a no-frills, often cautionary mindset that held all her hurts deep within, the tough cookie was embraced in her native Belgium. When she reached the Wimbledon finals, Belgium’s prime minister, prince, princess, deputy prime minister and ambassador all went to England, a development that prompted Stan Hey to conclude, “It would be a good day for invading this small country, if you had that in mind.”

Of course, Henin did precious little to brand herself as a cuddly star. There were no appearances on Leno, no TV ads with little puppies or Jelena Jankovic-like, giddy quips. She was always straight forward and brutally honest. After playing Hingis one day, she bluntly said, “I had a little bit of trouble on the return. It’s never easy for me to return against a player who’s serving pretty slowly.”

It’s sad to say, but here in America, the bright Belgian was less than a household name. So it was hardly surprising that when she won the U.S. Open, the big-cheese exec who forked over her $1 million check called her “Christine.” Plus, Justine always bristled at the notion that she might be envious of sizzle-queen Anna Kournikova.

“Kournikova is unapproachable,” she contended. “What should I be envious of? Her body? Her income? Her boyfriends? No thanks. I won’t exchange anything with her. I feel good the way I am. I don’t need a boyfriend every week. I’m serious and try to keep certain principles, to be generous and loyal and loved. I don’t drink and I hate discos.”

She hated losing, too. And last year she rarely descended from the summit. After navigating a painful divorce, she bypassed the ‘07 Aussie Open, then again won Roland Garros. True, she suffered a tough loss in the Wimbledon semis to the unheralded Marion Bartoli, but then she was unstoppable as she won Toronto, the U.S. Open, Stuttgart, Zurich and the year-end WTA Championship. En route, Henin reconciled with her siblings, but not her father, and said she had put her troubles behind her.

Tennis famously showcases performers with an extraordinary mix of guts and (“I will not be denied”) ferocity…[and] right there with the spunkiest of them is the Little Lady of Leige whose career was nothing if not a splendid, far too brief passion play.

Tightly wound, perpetually elusive, glitz-free and more than driven, time and again the severe dynamo, armed with her bilingual, “Allez – C’mon” call to action, bounced back from heart-wrenching persnal loss, testy on-court episodes and inexplicable maladies.

“People will think I’m still young, but in life there are no rules. I’ve invested enormously in my sport. Since I was five, I’ve only lived for that. I’m without aany regrets because it’s brought me emotions, images that are engraved on my heart.” At last, she was looking to a bright future and spoke of feeling joy, not just pride. After all, Rodriguez had challenged her: “Come on, let’s show what you are to people. Don’t put a wall in front of you. Now she’s here.”

But that’s not all. Rodriguez had one other little matter in mind — history. “I told her, ‘You have a chance to be the champion of champions, the player who wins 10 to 13 Slams’…But it’s up to her.”

But ‘07 proved to be too daunting an act to follow. There was no oxygen left. “It’s been tough for me since the beginning of the season, but I understand why,” she conceded. “What I did last year was pretty amazing…I knew it was going to take some time to realize and accept everything that happened.”

And, ultimately, Henin couldn’t sustain the hottest streak in women’s tennis in nearly 20 years. This season she was embarrassed by Sharapova in the Aussie Open quarters, lost to journeyman Francesca Schiavone in Dubai, was crushed in Miami by Serena 6-2, 6-0 and lost to Dinari Safina in Berlin.

Some might claim a bum right knee was to blame. But Justine was candid about her lack of confidence and said she played “without courage.” “I’m human and I’m hurt and sometimes humans fail…I’ve been driving my career based on emotion. But I don’t feel that emotion anymore since [last year’s season-ending championships in] Madrid.”

Unsparing critics might suggest that in an odd, perhaps unfair way, Justine’s sudden departure from the game was suggestive of when she suddenly pulled up stakes against Mauresmo. Certainly, fans would have preferred if Henin, who won 41 singles titles and the Olympic gold, had simply taken a break to re-charge.

Instead, Henin was unwavering. Poignant and trying to hold on to her emotions, she told the media, “This is the end of a child’s dream… I am leaving the world No. 1… It is always better to go out at the top. I leave without any regrets.”

True, Henin is exiting the game as one of the best ever to never win Wimbledon. But so what, she insisted: “Winning Wimbledon would not have made me any happier. I didn’t feel I was capable of winning there. I stopped before Roland Garros [which she could have taken for the fourth straight time] because I asked myself if I could produce a better result than last year and I realized I couldn’t…I started thinking about it late last year…People will think I’m still young, but in life there are no rules. I’ve invested enormously in my sport. Since I was five, I’ve only lived for that. I’m without any regrets because it’s brought me emotions, images that are engraved on my heart…So, there is a page that turns today…[and it is] more like a release…a look toward the future…I have arrived at the end of the road, I lived everything, gave everything, and I have my head held high.”

But Henin’s certainty didn’t stop the instant speculation of whether – like Borg, Billie Jean, Becker, Davenport and others – she would eventually “un-retire.” So the speculation has already begun: is it possible that “The Little Justine That Could” will return to the game?

All we can say is “Impossible Is Nothing.”