Justine Henin Becomes Warmer and Fuzzier

Since the separation from her husband, Justine Henin has reached out to her estranged family and reassessed her reasons for playing tennis.

It’s weird I know but a few days ago I laid in bed wondering if Martina Hingis is disappointed that her fiancée, Radek Stepanek, is tumbling down the rankings. I remember someone asking Chris Evert early in her career if she would date a low ranked player. “Let’s not get ridiculous,” she said. Chris ended up marrying John Lloyd who did tumble down the rankings and would have been happy devoting himself to supporting Chris’ career. If I remember correctly, Lloyd didn’t even drive a car. That in itself may have been too much. The couple divorced.

Being married and being on the tour is tough enough. Consider the role of Justine Henin’s ex-husband to be, Pierre-Yves Hardenne. He usually appeared sitting next to Henin’s coach and father figure, Carlos Rodriguez. Maybe it’s because the camera found him often or maybe it’s because Henin is not exactly Anna Kournikova and yet here she was flying around the world with a model-handsome young man on her arm, but Hardenne came across as a boy-toy tagging along in Henin’s small entourage.

Being a tagalong must be a difficult job, especially for a companion of the notoriously closed off Henin. The one time I sat in the players’ lounge at a tournament, I saw exactly one player come up to Henin’s table and talk to her. Meanwhile players all over the room were interacting with each other.

Rodriguez has been protective of Henin to a fault. He made public statements criticizing the behavior of the Belgian Tennis Federation when Henin couldn’t play Fed Cup last year. He also said that fellow Belgian player Kim Clijsters and her father Leo accused Henin of doping.

All of this makes life more difficult for Henin who already gets criticized for being self-absorbed and aloof. If Kim had been in that players’ restaurant, her table would have been the epicenter of action. She is the warm bunny to Henin’s cold shoulder.

That will now change for two reasons. Clijsters has retired and Henin is becoming warmer and fuzzier.

Earlier this year Henin separated from her husband and she was so upset about it that she skipped the Australian Open. The combination of going through a separation and the possibility of having to answer more questions about her ill-fated final at last year’s Australian Open was too much. She had made herself persona non grata in the tennis world by retiring due to an upset stomach in her final with Amelie Mauresmo rather than playing the match out and giving Mauresmo her moment of glory.

Emotionally stressful situations can set off large transitions in life. Henin’s first transition was living through her mother’s death at age twelve. Her response to that was to distance herself from her father Jose. Her second transition was the separation from her husband and that has led her back to her father and three siblings.

Here is her public statement:

The important thing for me in tennis now is to share the very special emotional moments with the people that work with me and care for me. I can offer these people a part in these moments that are pretty unique. It is this which now drives me to win.

There’s that self-absorption again. She’ll be able to offer her family a part in the unique experience that is her life. It sounds like an ad for a vacation condo: “We can offer you a unique experience full of memorable moments….”

Still, it’s a change and change comes in bits and pieces. Maybe she married early to find a substitute for her family. Maybe she’ll find that there were valid reasons why she distanced herself from her father. Ultimately we learn that marriage can’t give us what we didn’t get from our childhood and our family is what it is and that will have to do.

I personally cannot imagine what it would be like to figure your life out as a public figure. Henin is now the face of tennis in Belgium and the scrutiny will be even worse. She’ll probably go through more transitions and with each one she’ll gain a greater sense of herself.

Today is her 25th birthday. Happy birthday Justine, I’m looking forward to seeing the new you.