Seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Justine Henin started playing tennis when, as a five-year-old, she saw the French Open at Roland-Garros on television. With her game ideally suited for clay, she went on to win four titles there, three of them back-to-back (2003, 2005-07). Considered to have one of the best single-handed backhands ever in the game, injuries forced Henin to quit in 2011 while she was still among the best.
The former world No.1, who now runs her own tennis academy in Belgium and a foundation dedicated to the medical needs of children, was in Delhi for the Roland Garros Junior Wild Card series, held from 29 April-1 May.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Who are the favourites to win this year’s French Open?
The women’s tennis tour is very open at the moment. I am a fan of Simona Halep. We have some commonality—she is not tall or the most impressive, but she works hard to play well on clay. It will be interesting to see how she defends her first Grand Slam title. Every tournament (Grand Slam) was won by a different player last year. The women’s game needs a lot of concurrence at the top.
You have a great record at Roland-Garros. What does it take to win there?
It’s difficult to win there because clay is demanding. You need to be a complete player to win on clay. My education in tennis was on clay. I learnt at a young age how to move, to slide, to use the surface, to use different trajectories, and, also, how to be patient. It has been my biggest weapon on clay—the balance between patience and ability to build the point. I admire Rafa (Nadal)—when you can win it so many times, it means you are strong mentally, physically and smart too.
There is this conversation about a lack of depth in women’s tennis. Do you agree?
We still have these amazing champions who are quite impressive and if they can stay healthy, it gives them the possibility to play longer. That has changed in the last 10-15 years. Players can play longer because prevention workouts and recovery techniques are better. If we miss the consistency of players who play at their best the whole year, I am concerned that it is because there are a lot of distractions and it’s not always easy to stay focused. I still think the average level (of play) is going up. Some of the matches are unbelievable.
Does it surprise you that the newsmakers in tennis are still Roger Federer, Nadal and Serena Williams, who have been playing for roughly two decades?
It does not surprise me. We speak about players who are the best in the history of the game. We have lived with these names for the last 15 years. I hope we see more of them. We have to be honest: What Serena has done for the game is amazing. She took it to another level. She showed that when you want something deeply and trust your capacities, you could do a lot. There is a new generation, which is taking a bit longer than we thought (to mature). But it’s not easy for the next generation to come after these players.
Players seem to reach the top and break away from their coaches, like Naomi Osaka and Halep.
I was with my coach for 15 years. I don’t want to judge and I would not talk about these girls specifically, but, overall, people expect different things. I love what Rafa told me one day after a match in Roland-Garros. He said that when he is on court, whether he wins or loses, he is responsible, not his coach or his physiotherapist. It’s important for a player to understand that the player has the resources inside him. Others can help him use those resources. I talk a lot to young players and I have the feeling they have to see results quickly. But that should not be the case—sometimes, you need the time to build, to find the stability and results. The coach has to help you improve, and, sometimes, to improve you need to hear things that are not comfortable.
There are more former male players who have turned to coaching than women.
Probably more men are doing it. I have been more of a consultant, though I did work with (Elina) Svitolina. For me, I have two young children, who are six and two years old. It is still difficult as a mother to be away. When you want to coach and be on the tour, you have to do that for 35-40 weeks in a year. If you had been a great champion, it does not give you the guarantee that you will be a great coach. Your player will have a different personality than you. This requires different competencies.
Have you been approached for coaching by men/women besides Svitolina? Did you consider it?
Not really. There was one player in the past, then Svitolina, and one player I said no to. I am not on the tour, or pushing to be there. I am really involved in my academy in Belgium. I have always been clear even if I can travel, to be back on tour at this moment would be complicated. If I do it in the future, the personal relationship is important and it has to make sense. I don’t want to be there just to be there. I would love to help a player if I have the feeling that I can bring something to their game and the player can receive it.
John McEnroe called your backhand the best in the game, men and women combined. Why is the backhand such a special shot?
When you look at it, visually, it looks beautiful. It looks simple, natural and that movement of the two arms that separate and go away, it’s artistic. Everyone has asked me the secret of my backhand and I have always said it’s natural. But that’s not true. When I was 9, I had a coach. I had a technical issue that I didn’t feel the movement. Normally, I learn quickly. But for weeks and months, for three times a week, he kept saying that I was not doing the right thing. Then the repetition and the repetition, and we know it’s the key. When you train, how do you integrate movement? It’s with repetition. That happened with my backhand. One day, I felt that movement—I pressed with my forearm and didn’t use the shoulder much and I can say thanks to the coach, he made my backhand famous.
I never asked too many questions to myself but when I took the racket, it was the one-handed backhand. I was a big fan of Steffi (Graf) and Stefan (Edberg). I couldn’t play the two-handed backhand. I love the backhand of (Stan) Wawrinka—it’s amazing, beautiful.
Do you ever wonder that maybe you retired from tennis too soon (Henin first retired in 2008 as the world No.1. She returned to tennis in 2010 but called it quits in January 2011 at age 29)?
Not really. I asked myself that question a lot in the past. People who knew me on tour, and even journalists, knew that I was 300% committed to my career. For that, I lived in my bubble. It was to protect myself, to stay healthy. I had to sleep a lot, stay away from stress, away from distractions. To keep a certain social life away and stay focused on my career was a choice. A choice I have no regrets about. It was the only way I could do it and was the only way to have results. When I stopped for the first time, it was because for 15 years I did it with so much intensity that I had to slow down. I was tired mentally. When I returned, I wanted to go back to my career, live it differently and I had some success for six months. Then I had this bad injury and the doctor said it (my career) was finished. I could accept that wisely.
I was not as tall as the other players, so I needed to be strong to compete with players who were physically better. I pushed my body and pushed everything so far that I knew it would not be such a long career. I needed time to accept that when I retired. But I analysed and understood it and am completely at peace with it.
Do you regret not winning at Wimbledon after reaching two finals?
Not really and I analysed that as well. All the others Grand Slams, I could visualize and dream of. But Wimbledon I could not. One of the keys to success is to always ask a lot of questions to yourself and to feel an intimate conviction that you would be able to do it. I never felt that confidence to win Wimbledon. I came close, so I had the qualities, but I never realized that when I was on the tour, it came after. But you cannot change the past, and, to be honest, I am crazy about finding a certain kind of perfection, which I am far away from in many aspects of my life (laughs). But it’s good for me that I won all the Grand Slams, the Olympics, the Masters, and Fed Cup, except Wimbledon. That’s good therapy for me in my obsession of trying to be perfect.
Some players tend to have a love-hate relationship with the sport…
I don’t have that kind of feeling. Did I like everything in life? Of course, certain things were difficult. In any life, you cannot have only positive aspects. I really did love being on court, hitting the ball and training hard. I did love that feeling of giving my best and not knowing what would happen. That’s what life is—you don’t know what will happen. Of course, there was the travelling and hotels—but I cannot complain about the life I had because I learnt so much. Not everything is perfect—there is a lot of pressure and expectations. Sometimes, you wonder why you do it. It’s clear why I did it: I wanted to prove myself, push my limits to show what seems impossible can become possible.
Who are the young players who excite you the most?
I like the Canadian guy, Félix Auger-Aliassime. He is 18-19, has a great mentality and improves quickly. Osaka is still young and the No.1 already. I expect her to be at the top for a long time. I like the Canadian girl who won at Indian Wells (Bianca Andreescu). Caroline Garcia, the French player, has the potential to win Grand Slams but has not been able to do that.
What’s your professional future looking like?
I want to consolidate my academy. I want to find a balance between professional and personal life. My children are growing up so fast. But it’s not that I want to be with them all the time because I am an active person. I want to have quality time with them and try to find a good balance in seeing them growing up. So keep a foot in tennis, a foot in personal life, learn different things, travel and meet people—to live an almost normal life.