Gritty show

Justine Henin, like most players, is prone to the occasional mental lapse, yet is also able to calm herself, assert her game, swallow the fear and wear courage, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Almost always, almost every point, Justine Henin will turn her darting eyes to her coach Carlos Rodriguez. It is sad in a way that the world’s best player constantly needs reassurance. It is strange, too, for her look sometimes says “help”, or it asks “am I doing the right thing?” and if one thing was evident at the US Open it was that she needed no help, and she always did the right thing.

But it was also beautiful in a way for this bond between coach and athlete is meaningful, and lasting, going back 11 years, and it tells us, too, that in a stadium of 20,000 people an athlete can still be lonely and require a familiar face. In a career where she lost her mother, was estranged from her father and siblings, got married, then reunited with her family, then divorced this year (which led her to miss the Australian Open), Carlos has been Henin’s constant, her north star. It is why when she won she went to him.

Later, she said: “I can tell you today it’s a big day for Carlos and I because just the two of us really know how hard it’s been. He gave me an unbelievable support. Never judge anything. He was just there for me, he and his family. We just kept fighting together. He knew I really needed it at that time, and he never stopped pushing me a lot this year. He’s been so happy that I have my brothers and sister back in my life. He was really proud also at the French Open, I could dedicate my victory to them. It’s been just a great year for both of us. That’s why I wanted to go see him in the stands today.”

The Open was Henin’s seventh Grand Slam title (one short of Serena among modern players), it was her second Slam of the year, and it was the first time any woman had won a Slam defeating both Williams sisters. Svetlana Kuznetsova is an accomplished player, but for Henin she was a light snack in the final after the intensity of Serena and Venus. And against the sisters, who failed to take a set from her, the Belgian displayed two remarkable qualities.

The first was an intriguing toughness. Intriguing because Henin, like most players, is prone to the occasional mental lapse (she was broken while nervously serving for the first set against Serena, while serving for the first set against Venus, and while serving for the match against Venus), yet is also able to calm herself, assert her game, swallow the fear and wear courage.

Secondly, it appears almost unreasonable that such a slim woman can produce such telling power, and the answer lies not only in her lean muscles, her work ethic, her new trainer, but also in a pure technique. As she said: “It’s a question of timing also. Technically I worked very hard. I think it’s important to say that technically you can get a lot of power if you have a good technique. So I did work. I keep working every day on my technique when I’m not in tournaments.”

Henin was compelling, but so was the entire Open. A Grand Slam event is tennis’ highest theatre, home of its purest contests and its sharpest agonies. Anywhere else Rafael Nadal would have gone home without slapping a ball, taking his aching knees with him, but not in New York. This was a Slam, so precious they come only four times a year, so you swallow the pain. Sampras once played the second half of Wimbledon with shins so sore he couldn’t practise. He won.

It’s not true, but it almost seems as if players run that bit harder in Slams, move that bit quicker, like Jo Wilfred Tsonga who followed a ball along the baseline, past the linesman, over two barriers and into the crowd. He lost the point, high-fived a spectator and returned.

Five sets belong in a Slam, for five sets examine mind and body, five sets are also about second chances. Constantly players will slip, give a set away, then another, appalled by their own generosity, forced then to reach deep to find nerve and strength. Boxers and final rounds come to mind.

Till the finals, 21 times players went the entire distance. Is it harder to lose in five sets than in straight sets? Does going five show fight, but does it hurt more because you were so close? Radek Stepanek stepped over the net to embrace Novak Djokovic after they went the distance. A spectator just entering the stadium would not believe it was Stepanek who lost.

As much was revealed about players with racquet, as it was later with words. On court, David Ferrer played with the energy of a man who was plugged into a battery at changeovers, while the resolute Nikolay Davydenko appeared to resemble a moving wall at the baseline.

Matches dove into the early morning, crowds howled, cramp struck at the least opportune time, everyone fell in love with Djokovic, and Jelena Jankovic’s mother reminded us that the sane tennis parent is not fiction. She smiled, she seemed to enjoy the tennis not be pained by it, she applauded her daughter’s opponent, and she is the reason why her child can be admiring of a Venus Williams’ 116 miles per hour ace even in a tight tie-breaker.

As daughter Jelena, asked about her sportsmanship, said: “I think it’s nice to be fair, to give credit to the opponent. When she hits a great shot, why not? You can say, ‘Well done’. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with smiling also on the court. I cannot do anything when she hits an unbelievable serve. I cannot return it. So why not give her credit and say, ‘Well done, Venus’.”

Grace is a friend of Jankovic, but rarely hangs around Serena. Admiration for the younger Williams’ competitiveness runs deep, but her post-defeat discourtesies have become tiresome. Serena believes that she determines the course of every match, not her opponent, that if she is playing well she is unbeatable. However, having lost thrice this year to Henin in Grand Slams, some degree of acceptance that the Belgian was the superior player was required. Instead, at the Open, Serena said, “I just think she made a lot of lucky shots, and I made a lot of errors.”

Her careless words sounded worse because around her athletes stayed civil in the midst of hard defeat. Nadal was clearly hurting during his defeat by Ferrer, but when asked of it, he said that he had discussed his injuries all week but not today for he did not want to make it sound like an excuse. Ferrer, he said, “play very good and he beat me.”

Roddick, too, brought to the interview room some grown-up wisdom on a day where he played strongly against Roger Federer yet lost for the 10th time in a row. Asked if he felt sorry for himself that he had been born in Roger’s time, he replied tersely: “No. If I feel sorry for myself I’m a real $#%^&. Honestly, I get to play in atmospheres like that. You know, I get a lot of opportunities. I’m very lucky. If I start feeling sorry for myself I need a serious sense of perspective.” He doesn’t, Serena does.