Ottawa Citizen

Family ties, but Henin wins

Life off court finally gets better for four-time French champion

- BY CHUCK CULPEPPER

A pipsqueak born in an old PARIS • Belgian steel town just 304 kilometres up the road stood alone on dirt in the elegant city yesterday as 15,000 applauded her and reinforced an uncanny reality.

She rules this place. By the time she leaned on a tennis net and waited for yet another routed finalist to jog up for the handshake, it had grown clear you just can’t beat Justine Henin here anymore, seeing as how nobody has done it in the past three French Opens.

You can’t even get a set, seeing how nobody has in the past two French Opens. Heck, you can’t even beat her when her own friends’ section includes three striking potential distractio­ns. “It’s like my garden,” Henin said. Inarguable, but if it’s tricky for a maestro to play her first Grand Slam since filing for divorce, it might be downright delicate playing before the three siblings from whom she’d been estranged since 1999. Yet in a 6-1, 6-2, 65-minute win over quaking 19-yearold Ana Ivanovic, Henin saw in herself a knack she hadn’t realized: She’s a champion compartmen­talizer.

“Yeah, I’ve been a little bit surprised, because it’s been hard for me, everything I lived in the last few months, ups and downs, you know, I mean, good things, bad things,” Henin said. “And then I just realized that it’s life.”

Thereby did siblings David, Thomas and Sarah, absent during the first nine Grand Slam finals Henin played, materializ­e at the 10th alongside her coach of 11 years, Carlos Rodriguez, just behind the baseline from which Henin began the match. Students of tennis tried to guess which ones were they and wondered whether playing for them might avert Henin from playing against Ivanovic.

“We asked ourselves that,” said Thomas, 31. “She assured us it was OK.” Thereby did three siblings, absent for the first five grand slam titles Henin won, hear themselves thanked during the champion’s post-match remarks.

“We were surprised,” said David, 33. “She wasn’t obligated to do that. She wanted to do it.”

From the time Henin became famous as a 2001 Wimbledon finalist against Venus Williams to the winter 2007 when she skipped the Australian Open to cope with her divorce, she sporadical­ly begged privacy. Fans knew her for a backhand that drew rhapsodies from connoisseu­rs and for an obstinacy that drew bristles from opponents.

Nobody knew why she and her father and siblings remained estranged, and nobody does, still.

“She went to live her life, and we lived ours,” Thomas said. “She needed to be in the bubble. We thought we’d become close again after her career, but strangely, it happened now.”

By David’s account, it happened this spring. “I had a serious car accident at the beginning of April,” he said. “I was in a coma for two days, in danger of dying. Sarah called Justine and told her. Two days later when I woke up, she came to visit me. It was very moving. It boosted my morale. It was something horrible that turned into something good.”

They’d lost their mother, Francoise Rosiere, to cancer when Justine was 12. They had lost an older sister, who died in a car accident as a toddler. “Then we lost Justine,” David said. “Those things happen to a lot of families, but with us it was more public.”

Then one sunny day in June, they all turned up to watch Justine, born in Liege and raised in Rochefort, at Roland Garros, on the same court to which Rosiere would bring Justine from Rochefort to French Opens that included the epic 1992 final between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf.

From the tunnel over which they stood, Henin walked out as the No. 1ranked women’s tennis player and the 2003, 2005 and 2006 French Open champion, whose 12 sets in the tournament had included zero tiebreaker­s and only one that forced her to win seven games.

On the other side stood the towering, 6-foot-tall Ivanovic, to Henin’s 55, the last remaining Serbian at this French Open that boasted three Serbian semifinali­sts (one man, two women). But on the other side also stood a 19-year-old woman in her first Grand Slam final two days after her first Grand Slam semifinal.

How far would Ivanovic’s nerve endings fray? They would fray all the way to her service ball toss.

“It was going everywhere,” she said, and she began to catch it rather than serve it, and it began to cause little delays, and it began to prompt jeers.

“So I couldn’t really control it,” Ivanovic said with good cheer. “So I start to think more about that instead of my game. And also, I was too much focused on the serve, trying to toss the ball right, so I didn’t totally think about moving well or where I should play.”

That would qualify as a textbook entry on how not to play a wizard in her garden.

Half an hour in, Henin led by 5-1, Ivanovic’s errors sprayed glaringly, and the remainder had become formality. The bottom half of the draw through which the seventh-seeded Ivanovic emerged had earned its two weeks of put-downs. Ivanovic would go into the files with Henin-hammered French finalists Kim Clijsters (6-0, 6-4), Mary Pierce (6-1, 6-1) and Svetlana Kuznetsova (a relative tiger at 6-4, 6-4).

The only lingering curiosity would be the contents of the envelopes Henin kept opening during changeover­s. They would be reminders to concentrat­e and such, from Rodriguez. They would be superfluou­s. “She’s born on clay,” Rodriguez said, and so she stood on the clay near the net at the end, having just won with a forehand volley.

She threw her racket airborne and leaned over onto the net, having done something oddly unpreceden­ted. She’d won a Grand Slam event in front of three siblings she didn’t so much as see for seven years.

Then they played the Belgian national anthem and she dedicated her title to them, and one of them, Thomas, said, “It was a wonderful day.” That left only the question of when her father, Jose, might come get a title dedicated to him. He baby-sat a grandson yesterday in Belgium, watching on TV with Justine’s uncle in a restaurant.

“It’s very difficult for him, very emotional,” David said, but added, “The next year, he can come for the next victory of Justine.”

That doesn’t seem so presumptuo­us.

The Los Angeles Times

 ?? VINCENT KESSLER, REUTERS ?? Belgium’s Justine Henin won the French Open playing before a crowd that included three siblings from whom she had been estranged since 1999.
VINCENT KESSLER, REUTERS Belgium’s Justine Henin won the French Open playing before a crowd that included three siblings from whom she had been estranged since 1999.

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