Not bigger, just better

Not long ago, Justine Henin-Hardenne was a pint-sized dynamo with a great game but a fear of winning. Suddenly, she has become a two-time Grand Slam champion. By CINDY SHMERLER.

THE Monday morning after the U. S. Open ended, a stretch limousine sat idling at 48th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, seeming to occupy the entire block. A door opened, a hand reached out, and a reporter was pulled in for an interview with Justine Henin-Hardenne. Accompanying the new U. S. Open champion inside the vehicle were two agents, a publicist, a personal photographer, and Justine's husband, Pierre-Yves Hardenne. They all seemed giddy with a shared sense of triumph and happy to spend the day obliging the American press, which has yet to really get to know the Belgian star. (In addition to this interview, her whirlwind day would include a visit to Ground Zero, two interviews with CNN, and lunch with reporters at Nobu, a Japanese restaurant and celeb haven partly owned by Robert De Niro).


Today, Henin-Hardenne looked particularly petite and unassuming. Her straight, fine blond hair was gathered in a high ponytail, and she was clad in a navy-and-white-striped top — showing just a thin band of her flat tummy — a short denim jacket, and flip-flops. She has an easy laugh and natural poise, but it would be a stretch to call her lighthearted; the general impression she makes, both on court and off, is of determination.

Three days earlier, she had limped through an unforgettable semifinal with Jennifer Capriati and then marched into Arthur Ashe Stadium 20 hours later to claim the Open title by demolishing her countrywoman and rival, top-ranked Kim Clijsters.

Henin-Hardenne celebrated her win in New York with an anti-celebration. On the night after the final, she and Pierre-Yves sat in their hotel suite and ordered room service. Asked why they didn't go out and dance the night away, the Hardennes jointly rolled their eyes and admitted that the last time they were on a dance floor was when they cuddled through the ballad "Up Where We Belong" at their wedding reception last November.

The truth is, Henin-Hardenne is mature beyond her 21 years, and she has the discipline and professionalism of some-one twice her age. Her Spartan habits, born of a toughness acquired through childhood heartache, have been an important ingredient in her success.

Henin-Hardenne is aware of her unsual personality. Having left the limousine for a pancake breakfast at Ellen's Stardust Diner, a restaurant in the Theater District, she confided, "It's not easy to live with someone like me. I have a lot of character, and I'm very demanding with myself and with others. I'm trying to be better and improve this part."

Justine Henin-Hardenne and her husband Pierre-Yves with the French Open Trophy. — Pic. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES-

It has been an exhilarating, if exhausting, year for Henin-Hardenne. She beat Clijsters, for the Roland Garros championship in June, won 19 straight matches from the end of Wimbledon through the U. S. Open, and had more titles — seven — through September than any other woman.

As far as grinds go, the U. S. Open was in a league of its own. Heading into the Capriati semi, Henin-Hardenne already had finished three matches after 10 p.m. (mostly because of the havoc rain wreaked on the schedule). Then, in her epic with Capriati, she found herself within two points of losing the match an astounding 11 times. But, as she says of those escapes, "In tennis, everything can change very fast. Against, Jennifer, it was 6-4, 5-3 and I could lose the U. S. Open in this next game. But I didn't. At the end, it wasn't about thinking anymore. I wasn't afraid to win or lose, it was just a question of fighting."

Henin-Hardenne traces her indomitable spirit to, of all things the fierce ping-pong battles she and her brothers, David, now 30, and Thomas, 28, and sister, Sarah, 16, waged as kids. They would play for hours at their home in Han-sur-Lesse in French-speaking southern Belgium. The town is known for underground caves that follow the course of the Lesse river, a tourist attraction that gives the tiny village of 1,000 a seasonal split personality. As Henin-Hardenne describes it, "It has two different lives. During the winter anybody in the streets knows each other, and it's very intimate. But in the summer it's terrible."

Henin-Hardenne played soccer (centre forward, unsurprisingly; her mentality as an athlete is geared to offense) until age 12, when she decided to concentrate on tennis. During the summer, she would play with anybody who asked, stopping home just long enough for lunch before disappearing again until dusk.

Henin-Hardenne's signature one-handed backhand - John McEnroe describes it as the most beautiful shot in the game today — was there from the beginning. But as a junior, her forehand and serve were works in progress. In fact, she targeted them for improvement seven years ago when she hooked up with her current coach, Carlos Rodriguez, a former ATP pro from Argentina who left his job coaching Top-10 player Dominique Van Roost to sign on with Henin-Hardenne.

"I knew it was going to be a long way changing my serve," Henin-Hardenne says. "Now, for someone not so tall" — she's 5-foot-6 — "I have one of the best serves. We still work on my forehand every day, even though it's the shot I hit the most winners with."

Henin-Hardenne's success isn't all about ground strokes and serves. As Rodriguez says: "Justine at first was very smart, but physically she was skinny and week. But two weeks after I started to work with her, I discovered another face of Justine. I knew she could be Top 20. She had something different from every other player - her focus. I've never seen a person work like she works."

Henin-Hardenne was 13 when she lost her mother, Francoise Henin, to colon cancer. The year before, the two had sat together in a stadium at Roland Garros and Justine vowed she would one day play there. Two years after her mother's death, Henin-Hardenne was a surprise winner of the French junior title (she was a wild card), and this June she won the women's championship, her first major title. In Paris, looking skyward after she beat Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne acknowledged the vow she'd fulfilled. But she concedes that her favourite memories of her mother are only circumstantially related to tennis. "We talked every day," she says of their relationship. "She knew what time I was arriving from tennis practice, and every day my bath was waiting for me. She would come in while I bathed and we would talk. We had a close relationship, but I was only 12 years old — it was too short."

After Francoise's death, Justine's father, Jose Henin, a former postal worker, travelled with his daughter to tournaments. He had given Justine her first Donnay racket at age 5, hit with her for hours while her older brother practiced, and later recruited Rodriguez. But in the last few years, a rift developed. The subject is taboo with Justine, but observers say her increasing role as the family breadwinner precipitated the rupture. The estrangement seems to have accelerated when Jose became involved with another woman and when Justine met Pierre-Yves. In any event, feelings are so strong that neither Justine's father nor her siblings attended her wedding last November.

Henin-Hardenne knows how unusual it is for a touring pro, particularly of her age, to be married (there are only two other married women in the Top 20, Lindsay Davenport and Anna Pistolesi). Justine met Pierre-Yves when she presented the former phys-ed student with a trophy for winning a local tennis tournament. He was 18, and she was just 16 but already famous in Belgium.

Eventually, Pierre-Yves quit school to travel with Justine (she had left school herself at 16 when she turned pro). Now, he does the cooking and cleaning and furniture, shopping for their new duplex apartment in Namur, a city 40 minutes from Han-sur-Lesse.

In the player's guest box at tournaments, Hardenne is a study in composure while Rodriguez lets his emotions flow. And if Justine sometimes oddly refers to Pierre Yves as a member of her "staff," she also says, "I know I'm very lucky. Because of my marriage, I am a different person. Things are not bothering me at all like in the past. I've now accepted all the things I have to do around tennis - the press, the sponsors. That's my life, it's all about being a professional player. Accepting that has given me confidence and security."

One of the few things that could still make Henin-Hardenne feel insecure, as of this summer, was her husband's passion for motorcycling, which she finds reckless and dangerous. But shortly before the U. S. Open, Pierre-Yves promised her that if she won, he would turn over the key to his bike. She intends to hold him to his word.

Not so long ago, Henin-Hardenne was considered mentally fragile and prone to choking. At Roland Garros in 1999, her first appearance in a major, she blew an opportunity to upset second-seeded Lindsay Davenport. She led 5-4 in the third set, but, panicked by the realisation that she carried the hopes of Belgium on her shoulders, she crumbled and lost. She also squandered a set and a break lead over Clijsters at Roland Garros in 2001, losing in three sets, and just weeks later, in her first Grand Slam final, at Wimbledon, Henin-Hardenne lost to Venus Williams 6-0 in the third set.

Henin-Hardenne's impressive mental improvement has physical roots. Recognizing that she would need to get stronger to combat the other top players, Henin-Hardenne sought the help of Florida-based fitness guru Pat Etcheberry, who has worked with Pete Sampras, Capriati, Jim Courier, and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.

Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters before the French Open final at Roland Garros in Paris in 2003. This was Henin's first Grand Slam victory. -- Pic. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES-

Henin-Hardenne and Etcheberry began their work in earnest last December, guided by the trainer's no-nonse evaluation that while she was mentally strong, she was also no better than "Top 40 or 50" in the fitness department.

"I like to compare Justine to Jim Courier," Etcheberry says. "She isn't the strongest, fastest, or tallest. But she works so hard, all the time. And she's surrounded by good people. There were no egos involved in this, everyone just wanted what's best for Justine."

Henin-Hardenne, who briefly consulted with a sports psychologist as well, says that becoming stronger has been the key. "When I go out on the court I'm not afraid anymore to lose. Now I see that it's not just about winning and losing. It's about the work you have to do."

Henin-Hardenne's regimen combines endurance training, sprints, and plyometrics. Etcheberry has also helped her gain muscle mass in her legs and upper body. "Because Justine's small," he says, "she has to take a lot of balls high up. So we created good shoulder strength."

It was that newfound strength that became a matter of dispute the day the U. S. Open ended, when Clijster's father, Leo, and others, including former Belgian pro Filip Dewulf and Wim Vandeven, the trainer for Belgian player Els Callens, made pointed references to reporters about Henin-Hardenne's increased bulk, although they didn't explicitly accuse her of using illegal drugs.

The rebuttals were swift. Henin-Hardenne told reporters, "My only doping is work. I am ready to undergo whatever test, wherever, whenever, to prove that my body is clean."

Says Etcheberry: "I started laughing when I got the call about the doping story. I've never seen her take a nutritional supplement or a sip of alcohol. She was even worried about what was in the (glucose) IV drip after the Capriati match."

The controversy proved so embarrassing for Clijsters, who was in Australia with boyfriend Lleyton Hewitt when the story broke, that she went on the defensive, declaring on her Web site that the media had misconstrued and inflated comments to create controversy, and that as a result she would no longer do interviews that weren't mandated by the WTA.

The greatest damage created by this incident may be the added strain that it puts on the relationship between Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne, who just a year ago were eager poster children for cross-cultural harmony (Clijsters comes from the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium; Henin-Hardenne is a Francophone).

In San Diego in August, Clijsters questioned Henin-Hardenne's motives for calling a trainer to treat blisters on her foot at a strategic moment in a close match that Henin-Hardenne eventually won in a third set. (A nearly identical scenario had occurred at the Australian Open in January — in the third set of her match with Lindsay Davenport, Henin-Hardenne called for a trainer to treat blisters, then came back from 1-4 down to win 9-7). The criticism had an effect; At the U. S. Open, Henin-Hardenne refrained from calling for a trainer even though she was cramping badly during her match with Capriati.

And no one has forgotten Henin-Hardenne's conduct during her semifinal upset of Serena Williams at Roland Garros this June, when the Belgian held her hand up to interrupt Williams' serve but denied that she had done so when Williams asked the chair umpire for another first serve.

Henin-Hardenne has never fully explained her actions, only saying. "I never disrespect anybody. I don't mind what people are thinking. I know what I did, I know that it wasn't unfair. I live with that, totally, without any problems."

While few who witnessed that incident would agree that Henin-Hardenne conducted herself appropriately, many past champions have used controversy to their advantage — strong performances coupled with a strong personality is not a bad formula for stardom (remember Martina Hingis?) But Henin-Hardenne seems determined to get past anything that could taint her image or prevent her from focusing on her tennis. She has proven to be a problem-solver extraordinaire, starting with her ability to overcome the liabilities of her size.

Now the story will be whether her newfound sense of security can tide her through a head-on meeting with a new challenge — staying at the top of the game.