by Bia Assevero
- USA / France -
Justine Henin was on top of the tennis world. Literally.
The 25 year old Belgian was number one in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings and despite her less than stellar form of late, she was still a serious contender for the French Open which began this week. It’s a tournament close to Henin’s heart as she’s won it four times. She is, in fact, the three time defending champion.
But Henin will not go on to defend that title, choosing instead to retire, walking away from the game that has consumed her life ever since she was a child. The announcement came as a shock to almost everyone. The haters will say that she is simply taking the easy way out and retiring on the back of a slump. They will say that her loss to Dinara Safina in Berlin was the final nail in the coffin of her career.
But Henin has and will continue to fiercely deny those speculations; at the press conference where she announced her departure, she admitted that she’d been considering retirement for nearly a year. There’s a strong probability that the troubles in her personal life (Henin divorced from her husband in 2007) haven’t helped, but Henin’s retirement is actually a sign of a different trend.
She may be the first woman to ever retire while holding the number one ranking, but she certainly is not the first woman to walk away from the game in favor of “real life.” Kim Clijsters did it and so did Martina Hingis. The Williams sisters have also taken extended breaks from the game and Lindsay Davenport retired to give birth before staging a strong comeback.
Henin, however, is insistent that she won’t be back.
“I've been playing tennis for 20 years and it's been my whole life, but as a woman, as you get older, you need to think about the future,” Henin said. "A new future is ahead and I won't go back on this decision."
The fact of the matter is that tennis – unlike any other sport – has very little “off season.” It’s a couple of weeks respite at best for the top players if they make it to the end of season Masters tournaments in late November. They have two or three weeks of vacation before getting back to training and preparation for the first major tournament – the Australian Open – in January.
Physically, it’s exhausting and mentally even more so.
No one will ever question Henin’s mental strength; she was for the most part an extraordinary fighter on the court, the 2006 Australian Open final notwithstanding. Her small stature meant that in the face of physical giants like the Williams sisters or Maria Sharapova, she had to use finesse and intelligence to come out on top. It’s to her credit that she managed to build such a successful career, racking up 41 singles titles, including seven Grand Slams, along the way.
Tennis requires its female champions – far more than its male champions – to put their lives off the court on hold and dedicate themselves exclusively to the game. All tennis players – male and female alike – spend their childhoods training and are often sent to tennis academies to advance their careers. But the girls tend to turn professional at 16 and 17, sooner than most boys.
And whether it’s politically correct or not, it is easier for men to balance relationships and family life on the tour than it is for women because wives and girlfriends appear to be more willing to give up home and hearth in order to travel with their partners. They are often spotted courtside (singled out by television cameras) as they watch their men play; the same is not true for female players and their partners. However, it is important to note that because so many of the top women players are still very young – in their teens and early 20s – many of them are still under the very watchful eyes of their protective fathers. Maria Sharapova’s father Yuri is the classic example.
There are only two mothers actively playing in top tier WTA events. Lindsay Davenport is one and Austria’s Sybille Bammer is the other. That more than anything else spells out the fact that women on the professional tennis circuit, in the majority of cases, have to choose between their careers and their lives off the court. This may be true in other sports, and outside the realm of sports altogether, but there are two other reasons that make the balance more difficult in the context of tennis.
For one thing, there is the limited off-season. Tennis tournaments are played every week all over the world. Players jet from the Australian Open to the Middle East, from the American hardcourts in Indian Wells and Miami to the clay courts of Europe in preparation for the French Open.
And that only accounts for the first half of the year.
So many tournaments means that players have to work and train even harder to ensure they stay fit, increasing the risk of injury. That’s why top players have to pick and choose their tournaments so carefully. This can have damaging effects on the smaller tournaments – when fewer big name players turn up, fewer spectators come to watch – and in the end, it damages the spectacle of the sport as well.
The other element to consider is the isolated and individual nature of tennis. Sure, there’s a coach and masseuse and a number of other people in a tennis player’s entourage, but mentally, when it counts, they have no one else to rely on but themselves.
Burn out is inevitable.
Larry Scott, the chief executive of the WTA Tour described Henin as “someone who always played by her own rules, in the very best sense of those words.”
Hats off to you, Justine, very well played indeed.
About the Author
Bia Assevero is a dual French-American citizen and a recent graduate of the American University of Paris with degrees in international politics and international affairs. She is a linguist and a freelance sports journalist with a particular passion for European football.