A born fighter

Justine Henin's success comes by defying circumstances. Throughout her life, she has had to fight and overcome adversities, writes Nandita Sridhar.

The violence that precedes her backhand follow-through is almost legendary. But cameras at the Roland Garros, during the semifinal, chose instead to capture the searing intensity on Justine Henin's face. The slow-motion replays endlessly stretched her every facial contortion, elevating the sense of drama.

It was no doubt exaggerated, but nonetheless had some truth in it. It showcased Henin the tennis player, notably, the clay-court player. In the context of the match situation — she was hammering Jelena Jankovic in the second set and had all but sealed a place in the final — she could afford the occasional lapse. Yet, there was a relentless pursuit of perfection in her every shot. For someone with the gift of varying pace, spin and angle, Henin is not untouched by the repetitive ritualistic tendencies of past clay court masters. Only, her ritual has little to do with camping on the baseline, and more to do with singular intensity and mercilessness.

Roland Garros rewards Henin like no other place does. Her fitness, foot-speed and the slowness of the surface gives her the time to position herself to either zip across the top-spinning backhand, or use the defensive under-spinning sliced backhand. She also successfully uses a beefed up forehand to set up points. Four Roland Garros titles, including a hat-trick, says it all.

Technically speaking, the Belgian is born to the surface. But the 25-year-old's achievements on any big stage are not always looked at as a result of technical brilliance or artistry. Her success comes by defying circumstances. Throughout her life, she has had to fight and overcome adversities; overcome the grief of losing her mother to cancer when she was only 12; overcome the pain of estrangement from her father and brothers; overcome the death of a nephew and a grandparent; overcome a painful divorce. And lastly, fight a potentially career threatening infection (cytomegalovirus) that drained her and knocked her out for 14 hours a day.

On the one hand, fighting after being down breakpoints or down by a set requires relatively a micro level mental effort when compared to taking on the macro level challenges life has thrown at her. On the other, playing tennis and fighting on court was the escape route she needed to get away from personal turmoil. It required intense, passionate involvement that drained her of the energy to mull over life's cruelties. With Carlos Rodriguez, who has been her coach since she was 14, Henin used tennis to bounce back after her marriage broke down.

"I'll always be like this (intense)," she said in an interview to the Guardian last year, throwing light on her personality. "I'm totally intense in everything — with tennis, my husband (she was not divorced then), my coach and my friends. If I do something I give everything of myself. If you are my best friend I will expect to call you every day, and we speak for an hour at least. I know it helps me — that's why I'm on the phone all the time talking to everyone I love," she added.

But the French Open this year has seen the concurrence of on-court success, with a newfound familial peace. For the first time, Henin won a Grand Slam in front of her brothers and sister with whom she united recently. "It's been, yeah, a huge step in my life in the last few months. And I was glad I could give them this victory. Because everyone suffered a lot from the situation in the last few years. And today, finally, we are united in this joy, and we can share this moment, and it's great. And I feel so happy that I can offer that to them," Henin said after her win.

Experiencing a newfound emotional harmony might just help her to get in touch with the mostly ignored side of hers. Often, the Belgian's Slam pursuits have been clinical, cold and looked at as statistical and historic accomplishments. Sharing the moment with her family might bring in the much-needed enjoyment to her victories.

Though Henin's win has been the overriding story of the French Open, the Serbian entourage deserves mention as a further confirmation of the changing power structure in the women's game — a trend started by the Belgians, Henin and Kim Clijsters, and the Russians.

Finalist Ana Ivanovic's surreal journey from polishing backhands in an empty swimming pool in Serbia to the Roland Garros final is a fascinating tale. Similar tales are coming out of other European countries as well. War-ravaged and little or no facilities are no longer excuses for failure, but reasons to search elsewhere for success. Both Ivanovic and semifinalist Jankovic promise a better future for women's tennis, which is currently at the crossroads.

What it needs now is for the flair and artistry of Henin and Amelie Mauresmo, the youthful energy of Maria Sharapova and the Serbians, and a fitter and more focused Williams sisters to fire together, at least on the Grand Slam stage. By the looks of it Henin has the edge mentally and is on momentum for the next few months. Her biggest test will come at Wimbledon, where she risks getting out-hit by the big hitters after a draining clay season. But the 2006 finalist knows this is her best chance to feed off the clay court momentum and complete a career Slam.

But one wonders if that would give her the space and the mention she rarely desires and seldom gets. Part of this is due to her career coinciding with a historically more significant men's game that has Roger Federer chasing history and Rafael Nadal chasing clay-court history; while her low profile, questionable ethics and the mammoth standards set by her predecessors like Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Margaret Court invariably push her notches below.

Modern tennis standards don't allow her or anyone to match up to the past, but Henin's stroke-production is to be cherished while it lasts. It's worth appreciating her for her craft, and for seamlessly combining power and touch.