Return of the Enigma ; the Quiet Champion ++ after Two Months off Following the Breakdown of Her Marriage, the Famously Private Justine Henin Is Back. She Tells Paul Newman Why She Is Determined to Put a Difficult Period Behind Her and How She Is Ready to Adapt Her Game to Stay at the Top
Newman, Paul, The Independent (London, England)
It was as though the intervening four months had never happened. The Women's Tennis Association's updated world rankings were published on Monday, with Justine Henin sitting proudly on top of the list, just as she had in November, when the 24-year-old Belgian crowned the most successful year of her life by reclaiming her No 1 spot with victory in the season-ending WTA Championships in Madrid.
The bare statistics, however, conceal another remarkable chapter in the life of one of the modern game's most enigmatic players. Within weeks of lifting the W TA crown for the first time, Henin, an intensely private person, announced the breakdown of her marriage, pulled out of the Australian Open, lost the world No 1 ranking it had taken her more than two years to regain and admitted that tennis was the last thing on her mind. Two months later, however, she was back on the circuit and her return has been so successful that she goes into this week's Sony Ericsson Open in Miami as the world's leading player once again.
It has taken some unexpected help from Maria Sharapova, who has had an indifferent run since taking over as No 1 in January, but nobody should doubt the fire in Henin's eyes. Victories in her last two tournaments have been proof of the Belgian's determination to build on her successes in 2006, when she became the first player since Steffi Graf in 1993 to reach the finals of all four Grand Slam tournaments and the WTA Championships in the same year, retained her French Open crown and reached the finals of 10 of the 13 tournaments she played, winning six of them.
If it is tempting to suggest that Henin is using her professional life to put her private problems behind her, the player is having none of it. "I've never used tennis as a way to forget about something else," she said. "I just try to face reality. Tennis is something I love so much and that's why I didn't want to lose too much time away from the court. It's been my life for nearly 20 years and it will be for a few years yet."
Balancing private and professional lives is a challenge for anyone in the public eye, particularly those who spend such long periods away from home, but in Henin's case there was every reason to fear that the breakdown of her four-year marriage to Pierre-Yves Hardenne (right) would have a particularly traumatic effect.
For years Henin's family life has been clouded by controversy following an extraordinary rift with her father and other male relatives. Henin's mother, to whom she was very close, died when she was 12 and five years later she left the family home for good, cutting off all ties with her father and two elder brothers, for reasons which have never been made public. The only members of the family who attended her wedding in 2002, four years after she had met Pierre-Yves, were two aunts; her father, two brothers, sister, grandparents and paternal uncles were not invited.
Within a year of their marriage, Hardenne was talking about the difficulties of living in his wife's shadow. Henin herself made occasional references to the pressures they were under, but since announcing their separation in January has steadfastly refused to talk about it. While her compatriot and great rival, Kim Clijsters, is an open and bubbly individual with a smile never far from her face, Henin remains guarded, serious and defensive.
"I want to keep my private life private," she said. "I'm sure a lot of people can understand that. There are always people who are curious and want to know why and who, but it's my life and everybody has to respect that. We all have the same rights. I'm a public person and I understand that perfectly.
"We can talk about tennis, but as soon as I'm away from the tennis court then my life is private and I think I should be able to keep it to myself. It's like it's my secret garden. Why should I be any different, just because I'm a famous tennis player? …