Justine Henin: Roland-Garros feels like home
Four-time Roland-Garros champion, Justine Henin, is back in Paris, this time in the new role as advisor to Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, who is through to the fourth round. At this tournament so dear to her heart, lots of things have changed for "Ju"- but plenty of things stay the same. Here, she opens up to rolandgarros.com about her return.
Coming back to Roland-Garros, where you are a four-time champion, must awaken some special memories.
"It's always special and different each year. Of course, until now, each time I came back it was to work for TV. That was obviously a whole other experience. Now I'm back and assisting a player [Elina Svitolina], it's something else entirely. But the memories come back and the emotions are still there. I've also stepped back from the tennis lifestyle. My first life, you could say. But when I'm at Roland-Garros with my little girl [three-year-old Lalie] as I have been in the past few days, yeah I feel very proud. Because it's a part of my history, this place. Not just my tennis history, but a part of my life's journey."
Has Roland-Garros helped you become the woman you are today?
"Yes, of course. I've experienced great moments, fulfilled dreams here. Truly. So that stays with me, but it's a bit more distant now, and this perspective lets me analyse things differently, even in the positive sense. Coming back with different roles makes a change and requires you to adapt but I'm happy to be here every time. Roland-Garros is home for me. I feel a little like I belong here."
When your daughter sees photos of you around the grounds, does she know it's you or has she no idea?
"Yes, she knows (smiling). But it's funny because a few days ago, she saw a photo of me wearing my tennis gear and she said: 'Look Mummy, it's Justine Henin in the picture!' (laughter) She doesn't make the connection but she knows I've achieved things, she knows there's a strong connection between her mum and tennis. She's seen me in pictures lifting trophies. But at the same time, it's kind of the same for me: I know it's me, but it's almost another me nonetheless, because my life has changed so much since then. She understands that there was something else, obviously without grasping the finer details, but that impresses her anyway. She watched Elina's first round match, she was really attentive, it impressed her. Of course I'm happy she can experience this environment, and discover this world that was once mine. But...not too much either." (smiling)
Among your four titles here (2003, 2005, 2006, 2007), is there one that stands out?
"They were all different. The first stands out, of course, because for me, winning the French Open really was my childhood dream. When I was six, I'd close the door of my bedroom and throw myself on the ground as if it was the clay at Roland-Garros. I'd lift my arms to the sky like I'd won the tournament. It was a dream that I really cherished. So obviously when that dream becomes a reality, its extraordinary. When I was younger, very few people believed in me. I was quite small, a little delicate, I had gone through hardships in life too [such as the passing of her mother, when Justine was 12] so that meant very few people thought I had the mental strength to get there. And it was a bit of a crazy dream, if you think about it! I would shout from the rooftops when I was really young that that was what I wanted, and everyone looked down on me. I really worked for it, so when it became a reality ... wow. Even now it's a little hard to describe, I don't think I'll ever really manage to realise what happened that second when, age 21, it became real. So that one was very special. The last one too, because obviously I couldn't have known it would be the last, but I think I felt it; it was unique for lots of reasons, in particular because my brothers and sisters were there; it was the first time they saw me in a major tournament. The first and the last titles were particularly moving, yes. But you know, every time it's really amazing, just with a different intensity."
Have you watched your finals?
"Definitely not in their entirety, no. It's not at all my thing to delve back into the past. But yes, I've occasionally seen images, retrospectives when I ended my career but... (pauses) I don't delve into past memories too much, I never watch videos. When I come back here though, everything becomes really natural again. The feelings are still there and I never forget what I experienced on the courts here. I remember every detail. Time goes by at an incredible speed! I realise that my last win was nine years ago here. (She exhales). It flies by. It goes by really, really quickly. And then tennis has changed, of course, in different ways, but the tennis world doesn't really change so you get your bearings again pretty easily." (smiling)
There must be plenty of people who tell you that they miss your one-handed backhand, slice and versatility.
"Yeah, sure. I miss that too, when I watch women's tennis. It's true, that was the way I played, but there were others. With Amélie (Mauresmo), for example, we kind of had the same tennis style. Serena's game is admirable. I have a lot of admiration and respect for her, and am really impressed that she still has the motivation to be here. What I regret a little in women's tennis is the lack of consistent female players that could shake her up a little, because she has the ability to dominate women's tennis for a good while if she wants to. It would be great to have several female players who you can rely on, like it used to be in the previous generation or even the one before."
Do you think there was a more positive competitive spirit when, during your era for example, there were several of you that were capable of aiming for victory in the Grand Slams?
"Yeah, sure, and at the same time we were often pretty consistent. There seems to be more surprises nowadays, there's a little more irregularity. The level of tennis in general has improved, I think. You can play some solid tennis with someone ranked 50th or 60th in the world so the average level has improved, I think. But I do think the rivalries are lacking somewhat... The thing that brings tennis to new levels is when you regularly have several consistent female players. Voilà. There are lots of interesting styles and good female players, but I've always been a big fan of men's tennis too (smiling). I still follow the game, but less than before, that's for sure. I have other passions in my life now, other things I want to discover and do. When tennis is the only thing you've done for 25 years, the world has a lot to offer! So I don't sit at home in front of my TV constantly watching matches." (smiling)