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By Rohit Sharma
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Last Weekend, I happened to have a long awaited re-union with one of my dear friends Mary-Jane, who visited me from Warwickshire to catch up on old times. One of the most impressive aspect about her personality is that, despite being overtly opinionated, she has a knack in putting across her point in such a way that even the firmest oppositions find it difficult to disagree with her.
Both of us share the same 'tennis-genes' that go back to the 90's when she managed to beat me everytime we hit the courts. Perhaps, the 'battle of sexes' between Billie Jean and Bobby Riggs was her primary source of inspiration everytime we played.
And like many other tennis fans, she happened to carry a decade old discussion with me over Justine Henin's supremacy over the Williams sisters. Me being an ardent Williams fan, had always tried to out-chat her but she did raise a valid point - "My little Justine may have been a midget in front of the NBA convention of the Williams sisters, but she turned out to be the biggest 'over-achiever' in women's tennis in a long, long time."
My reaction was quite predictable - ''Well, get over yourself Janey', How can you say that, don't you see the 11 Grand Slams and multiple Olympic gold medals or five Wimbledon crowns." Ofcourse, I had my re-buttals which, to my dismay, were perennially insufficient and inadequate for Mary-Jane. However, this time i am all set to hear some completely different tunes about the woman who is all set to make a return to the tour after just 16 months of announcing her retirement from professional tennis, and that too by someone, who i am sure on some level, was praying for her favourite tennis star's comeback.
If Williams sisters are the epitome of 'Power', Henin's precision and touch made her the 'Queen of Finesse'. When Henin shocked the tennis world with the news of her retirement in 2007, she had the incumbency to the top spot and was the only player, male or female, ever to retire from professional sport at the very pinnacle. However, at that time, Henin cited some completely different reasons.
"I'm at the end of the road. This is the end of a child's dream. I have experienced everything I could have. I have lived completely for tennis. I am relieved and proud of what I achieved."
Point taken. Of course the physical and emotional exertion had taken its toll as it reflected through Henin's various statements. But what was it that made her change her mind. She certainly did achieve a lot on her last complete year as a professional, winning the US Open and French Open to take her slam tally to 7.
All said and done, Ms. Henin is in full groove nowadays and is on an all-time inspirational high after seeing compatriot and longtime on-court rival Clijsters bask in the Grand Slam glory at Flushing Meadows. Let's find out the real reasons behind the Belgian's decision to start her second innings in the professional world of tennis.
Those 16 months
The post retirement life is pretty hard to deal with for any sportsperson, especially when the career has been so stellar and eventful. At first, Henin decided to devote her time on charity foundations and humanitarian work for UNICEF as an ambassador for Belgium and later came up with an idea to start the 6th Sense Tennis Academy alongside longtime coach and friend Carlos Rodriguez in Florida, USA. During these 16 months, Henin travelled the world and ensured her trips to Roland Garros in 2008 and in 2009 when a street was named after her in her felicitation by the French Tennis Association. Perhaps these 16 months brought the much needed break she yearned for during her hectic tennis schedules as a tour professional. There were no plans for a comeback till the early 2009 when Henin kept herself busy with the Tennis Academy in USA.
However, for a fighter like Justine, putting the competitive memories behind her, turned out to be the biggest challenge of the life post retirement. When legendary Martina Navratilova could think of a comeback at such an age, the Belgian could think of a similar possibility too. After all, she had the age and the fitness level to go with it. It can easily be said that with so much in her thoughts, it became quintessential for her to get back to her favourite place in the world, the tennis court.
"Returning at that level so fast is something I respect enormously. Another hardest thing for me is the physical aspect and to get back to basis in that respect and build up my fitness and what's hardest is to be wise enough and to have the patience to say I need time, time will help."
The Wimby-Grass ITCH
Many would agree that the only blemish in Henin's otherwise perfect tennis career was her inability to win the biggest prize in women's tennis, the Championship at Wimbledon. She made it to the finals twice (2001, 2006) and came pretty close to winning the title in 2006, but fell short infront of eventual champion Mauresmo's tenacity. After all, Wimbledon was the young Belgian's first Grand Slam final, and it was the grand stage of the AELTC, that gave Henin the recognition as the welcome entry to the elite female players. It may have taken her a long gap of two years to finally win a Grand Slam, but Wimbledon still stayed out of her reach. Emerging victorious at SW19 is every player's dream and it can easily turn into an obsession if someone already has the other three slams in her kitty. The dream of holding a 'career slam' must have added to Henin's already ignited competitive edge.
"I've been able to recharge my batteries, emotionally as well," said Henin. "A flame I thought was extinguished forever suddenly lit up . I want to come back in January"
The 'Inspirational Kim'
Although Henin had made a firm decision about her return to professional tennis thereby spicing up the rumours that were already doing the rounds since early August, it seemed that Clijsters' dream comeback made it a lot easier for her to announce her own which she did on September 22. Clijsters triumph at the Open pushed Henin over the edge about finalising her second innings at the WTA tour.
It will be an exaggeration though to say that Henin's decision was driven by Clijsters successful return to the tour. The seven time Grand Slam champion had been contemplating her comeback since the French Open, where she found it extremely difficult to stay away from the action that drove her entire life and the fond memories that shaped up her extremely successful career.
"I was at the top of tennis for so many years and then for 15 month I totally cut myself off. I quit Sport, I did other things."
Personally speaking, Henin's decision to retire from the professional sport was motivated by an arguably complacent approach towards the game. She may have achieved a lot, but there was still a lot more to experience, which the Belgian did not think through. When you have spent an entire lifetime with a single-minded quest for supremacy, it's always hard to find a replacement for it, and that too at an age when dreams are still achievable. After all, no one wants to live his/her life with ''coulda-woulda-shoulda'' thoughts. So instead, Justine decided to take her chances.
The FIRE within
When Steffi Graf announced her sudden retirement a decade ago, it looked nothing more than a hasty decision to most fans and critics. With 22 Grand Slams and a myriad of records, Graf had it all and despite living almost all her life on a tennis court, she could finally think of separating herself from the game to start a new chapter. She could have played for another couple of years to perhaps top the all time list of Grand Slam singles wins ( 2 behind Margaret Court's 24 titles ), but the motivation was no longer there. Morevoer, Graf had found a perfect replacement in Andre (Agassi) with whom she could think of settling down. Even as a tour professional, Graf had made things quite clear about living a low-profile post-retirement life. Henin, on the other hand has both motivation and the age to re-establish herself as the best in the sport.
"The road is still long, but I think that's what I like, the big challenges. I think that's part of my personality to put myself in danger, to take on challenges that sometime seem insurmountable, and i have done this several times."
Whether the Belgian Tennis Queen will see her dreams come true yet again or not is a question still to be answered and only time will tell how much she can achieve in her second attempt towards building a career. But the fact remains that despite the challenges that will inevitably come along, Henin's fighting spirit and the ferocity will overcome any hurdle to find solace, this time ON COURT.
"Sometimes it's wiser to take a plunge than sitting by the river, wondering about the depth of the water."
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