Thursday, May 15, 2008

Knowing when not to quit

Justine Henin has gone through stages of struggling, but I never for a moment expected her to quit. Say what you will about Henin but she is not a quitter. Her decision to retire with immediate effect has caught me totally by surprise.

After all, we are talking here about a woman who had sacrificed everything for tennis. Years ago, she severed all ties with her family and replaced them with Argentine coach, Carlos Rodriguez, who encouraged her single-minded determination and focus. With his help, Justine succeeded in developing weapons that belied her slight frame and short stature. Her single-handed backhand is lethal. But she also developed a stinging forehand, powerful serve, and crackling volleys.

There was probably no bigger proof of Justine’s dedication than the brevity of her honeymoon with effete looking schoolteacher, Pierre-Yves Hardenne. I remember Mrs. Henin-Hardenne being back on the tennis courts about two days after her wedding, if that. Her reward was finishing the year [2002] ranked fifth in the world.

Justine’s single-minded hunger for tennis achievement quickly bore fruit. If I had to pick a defining moment that best captured her avarice for success, I would be hard-pressed to choose between the brevity of her honeymoon, and the “hand” incident against Serena Williams at the French Open a year later.

By the end of 2003, Justine was ranked Number 1. But some said that it came with a price – her health subsequently suffered. She struggled in 2004 against an unexpected virus that sapped her energy and left her practically unable to brush her teeth. She struggled again in 2005 as she rehabbed her way back from injury. But not for a second did she ever hint of quitting.

In 2006 alone, Justine earned over four million dollars in prize money. She was at the top of her game, revenging herself against Maria Sharapova at the year-end finals. Henin made history twice more in 2006. She became the first player since Martina Hingis to win the WTA Tour Championships and end the year as the top ranked player. She also became the first woman to win at least one Grand Slam singles title in four consecutive years since Steffi Graf did so between 1993 and 1996. All in all 2006 was a good year for Justine. Quitting seemed to be the last thing on her mind.

2007 started badly for Justine – she withdrew from the Australian Open. She later announced on her official website that she was then divorcing her husband. This, and a car accident involving her older brother, paved the way for reconciliation with her family. Later that year, her siblings were on hand as she claimed her third Roland Garros trophy.

Justine started 2008 as the Number 1 player in the world. Then she lost to Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, swallowing a bagel in the process. She lost in Dubai to the tenacious Italian Francisca Schiavone. She lost in Florida to Serena Williams, swallowing her second bagel of the year. She withdrew from South Carolina, and then lost in Germany to Dinara Safina, to whom she had previously never even lost a set.

But to be honest, I did not think too much of these losses. All players go through challenging phases. And besides Dinara seemed to be having an exceptionally good week, finally, possibly, coming out of the shadow of her famous older brother. Dinara had also snapped Serena’s 17-match streak and then went on to win the tournament after facing Elene Dementieva in the finals. This made Justine’s loss to her less humiliating, less of a cause for concern.

But she apparently did not think so. She subsequently withdrew from Rome – and then immediately announced her retirement, a week to the day after her countrywoman, Kim Clijsters, made the same decision a year ago. Just like that, Justine was through with tennis. “Everything became harder,” she said. “I felt, deep inside, something was getting out of my grasp.”

But I can't help but think that that is why breaks were invented.

I wish Justine had had the perspective to just take some time away from tennis. She would not have been the first player to leave tennis for a while, get restored and rejuvenated, and then return. Lindsay Davenport took time off, had her baby, and came back feeling fresh and enjoying the game again. Serena took time off, tried to become a Hollywood actress, and came roaring back. Jennifer Capriati took time off, got her head back on straight, and came back in spectacular form. There is no loss of honor in taking a time-out.

Instead Justine quit, describing her decision to retire as "the end of a child's dream". What a disparaging thing to say about an incredible career. She also said that she had reached her limits. And again I found myself thinking – but that is why breaks were invented. Burnout is real. The solution is to get away for a while, not quit altogether.

But this is not the first time that Justine appears to have made an important decision with her heart. Despite her tenacity and strong will, she seems to be a passionate woman who allows emotion to govern many of the important decisions of her life. She won Roland Garros to honor her mother. She cut off her family to honor her feelings for her lover. She reconnected with her family after cutting him off. There seems to be an either-or quality to her cognitive processes. She gives it her all or she gives nothing at all.

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