May 22, 2008

Grass greener on the other side of Wimbledon for Henin

By H Natarajan

She did not possess the glam quotient of Maria Sharapova, the height advantage of Venus Williams or the muscular power of Serena Williams nor was there hype and hoopla around her. Physically, she was small in build and short in inches. But in a sport where it’s an accepted belief that size does matter, Justine Henin disproved that theory by showing that it’s not size but stature that matters. And in terms of stature, she was towering.

Justine Henin was the “best of her generation” as the legendary Billie-Jean King proclaimed. Henin was just 25, No 1 in the world and on the threshold of attempting a fourth straight title triumph on the red clay of Roland Garros. So why this shocking exit at this young age and when right on top?

Walking away from a life that has given it all – name, fame, mega wealth and all the other trappings that come with high-voltage success and celebrity lifestyle – is never easy. It’s not easy even one hears the disturbing creaks of a body showing the effects of wear and tear. Here, too, Henin underlined that she was in a league of her own with her stunning decision to give it up all at the prime of her career and when she had plenty left in the gas tank. Her decision was reminiscent of the great Bobby Jones who bid farewell 78 years ago after becoming the only golfer to win the Grand Slam or, as it is also known, the "The Impregnable Quadrilateral". Jones was just 28 years old.

The “Big W” was the only major missing from Henin’s seven Grand Slam and she could well have delayed her decision by a month to have a final crack at the premier grass court event in the world. The shocking and untimely finality of her decision was hard to accept.

It was about rediscovering lost joys and unfulfilled ambitions that she perceived as having more life than pure professional pursuits. As she explained: “I’m going to appreciate going for a run with nothing at stake, just doing it for pleasure. I’ve never put my feet in skis, and next year I think I’ll be doing it the whole winter. I want to rediscover the small pleasures, not look at my watch all the time because I have to get to training the next day.”

There are enormous personal sacrifices to make in the run-up to becoming a champion and the price to pay is very high at times. Champions usually start very young and have to lead life away from the emotional cocoon of their families. The coaches are the parents and the playing arena their homes. And these homes require young hopefuls to undergo killing schedule and unflinching discipline. Small pleasures and comforts that most children in the world outside take for granted have to be sacrificed in pursuit of their goals. This has its adverse effects.

In the case of Henin, the price, tragically, was a bit too high than most. She lost her mom to cancer at the young age of 12, got estranged with her dad for a while, had to live through the horrors of losing almost losing another family member when her brother met with a car accident and had to endure the pangs of a failed marriage. Her personal life was a mess. Retirement was probably her way of getting the balance right in her life, getting a life outside the five star hotel rooms and tennis courts around the world.

After finishing as the World No 1 for three years, after winning four French Open, two US Opens, one Australian open and finishing runner-up twice at Wimbledon, after clinching 41 titles on the WTA Tour and after pocketing the Olympic gold and after raking in nearly $20 million on the tour, Henin must have reached saturation point.

“Maybe people will think I'm still young, but in life there are no rules...There is a page that turns today and I feel no regrets. On the contrary, it's more like a release, more like a relief, more of a look toward the future." Indeed. Henin made her own rules: be it defying and triumphing against the odds as a five-feet, five-inch, 57-kg player pitted against six-foot-plus giants like Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova or keeping faith with one coach for 11 long years. And she is leaving on her own terms.

"This is the end of a child's dream," she said while announcing her retirement. And not winning Wimbledon is no big deal; the grass on the other side of Wimbledon is greener for Henin.