Henin's mental focus gives her fighting chance Down Under
Two years ago, when Maria Sharapova crushed Justine Henin in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, the Belgian pretty much knew that she was mentally toast, that she no longer had the desire to put her small body in the line of fire against the big girls.
She dragged herself out on court for another four months, but her willpower was receding and her body ached. Her heart wasn't in it anymore, and after being blown out by her archrival Serena Williams in Miami and then falling lazily to Dinara Safina at the German Open, she retired.
“When I lost against Sharapova two years ago, I confirmed to myself that I wasn't really into it anymore,” Henin said Tuesday. “ When I (had beaten her three months prior at the WTA Championships in Madrid), I felt something at that point. There was my little voice that was saying to me that I should go away because I needed something else, to breathe differently without tennis, to prove different things to myself.
"Sharapova here, Williams in Miami, it was difficult losses. But in another way, they helped me to understand that I had to go away.”
Now, she's back, and in just three weeks time, Henin has already shown that with a refreshed mind and body and a new attitude, that she's already at a top-five level and is getting close to her former No. 1 status.
On Tuesday at the Australian Open, she took a 7-6 (3), 7-5 victory over the red-hot Nadia Petrova to reach the semifinals, her fourth straight victory over a notable player. Like she did against Elena Dementieva, Alisa Kleybanova and Yanina Wickmayer, Henin brought out her best when it mattered most.
She's lacking some energy at times and isn't spot on during every game like she was in her heyday in 2004, but when the critical points come, she was laser focused. She'll whip a one-handed backhand down the line, skip into a crosscourt forehand, put more bite on her slice and salivate on second serve returns. She's learning once again how to turn it on when the match is on the line, which makes her the clear favorite to reach the final.
“I think I improved a lot in this tournament since in Brisbane,” said Henin, who at the outset of the year lost to Kim Clijsters in a third-set tiebreaker in the Brisbane final. “In this tournament, I've been able in the last few days to do it. It's probably the most important thing. Even if you know you're not playing your best tennis, being able in the tight moments to play good points like I did, I think it's the key mentally.
That means that I'm still here. Even if I'm getting older, I still have this fighting spirit, and that's a good thing.”
Henin's longtime coach, Carlos Rodriguez, has noted how much more relaxed she is now and how much she has matured from a person who in her time off realized that she drove herself way too hard to the point of physically suffering. But while she appears more relaxed, she'll always be an intense person, and now that she has reached the final four, not obsessing about her tennis and a potential eighth Grand Slam title will be difficult.
She may be able to take a deep breath knowing that she'll meet the quick counterpuncher Jie Zheng — who clubbed Maria Kirilenko, 6-1, 6-3 — in the semifinals rather than the likes of Safina, but if she manages to get to the final and has to spend Friday thinking about how she'll knock off one of the Williams sisters on Saturday night, her stress level will certainly rise.
Whether she's able to put her feet up on a lounge and take in some sun or instead decide to go pump some iron, the Belgian will surely show up prepared to rumble. She's still trying to find the right mix, and so far, she has stepped quickly across the balance beam.
“It's a big challenge,” she said. “I'm much more relaxed than I was in the past. I hope it's not only because it's the beginning and I'm not going to get crazy again in six months, that I can (make) something new. I think that takes me less energy than in the past.
"Because in a Grand Slam, I was really in my bubble. Now, we just go forward. I'm more open to a lot of things. That's the way I have to keep going."